From Arrogance to Destruction
In Daniel 5, the Word of God gives us a powerful example of human hubris that ends in a stunning and dramatic way. Though one could say that it takes Nebuchadnezzar a long time to learn his lesson, at least he learned it. His grandson, Belshazzar, does not. In using the temple vessels in a palace orgy, Belshazzar desecrates them. Such an act of desecration is tantamount not only to a challenge of God but an attack on God Himself. Thus, Belshazzar fills up the cup of his iniquities, acting in ways similar to the little horn (see Daniel 8), which attacked the foundations of God’s sanctuary. By removing dominion from Belshazzar, God prefigures what He will accomplish against the enemies of His people in the very last days. The events narrated in Daniel 5 took place in 539 b.c., on the night Babylon fell before the Medo-Persian army. Here occurs the transition from gold to silver, predicted in Daniel 2. Once more it becomes evident that God rules in the affairs of the world.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, February 8.
The king commands that the sacred utensils of the Jerusalem temple be used as drinking vessels. Nebuchadnezzar seizes the vessels from the Jerusalem temple, but he places them in the house of his god, which shows that at least he respects their sacred status. But Belshazzar turns the sacred vessels into drinking utensils in a most profane way. While drinking from the sacred vessels, Belshazzar’s lords “praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone” (Dan. 5:4, NKJV). It is worth noticing that six materials are mentioned. The Babylonians used the sexagesimal system (a system based on the number 60) in contrast to the decimal system used today (based on the number 10). Thus, the six categories of gods represent the totality of the Babylonian deities and, therefore, the fullness of the Babylonian religious system. Interestingly enough, the order of the materials follows the order of the components of the dream statue of Nebuchadnezzar, except that wood replaces the clay. As in the dream, stone appears last; although here it designates the material composition of idols, stone also evokes God’s judgment upon worldly empires (see Dan. 2:44, 45), which Babylon symbolizes.
This feast serves as an apt representation of end-time Babylon as seen in the book of Revelation. Like Belshazzar, the woman in endtime Babylon holds a golden cup and offers polluted drink to the nations. In other words, by means of false doctrines and a distorted worship system, modern Babylon lures the world into evil (Rev. 17:4–6), oblivious to the judgment that will soon fall upon her. One day judgment will come.
As Nebuchadnezzar does in previous crises (Dan. 2:2, 4:7), Belshazzar calls the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers to clarify the mysterious writing. And to make sure that they give their best, the king promises them extravagant honors: (1) purple clothing, a color worn by royalty in ancient times (Esther 8:15); (2) a chain of gold, which was a sign of high social status (Gen. 41:42); and (3) the position of third ruler in the kingdom. This last reward reflects accurately the historical circumstances of Babylon at that time. Because Belshazzar was second ruler as co-regent with his father, Nabonidus, he offers the position of third ruler. But despite the tempting rewards, the sages once again fail to provide an explanation.
On top of all his sins, then, the king attempts to find wisdom in the wrong place. The Babylonian experts cannot uncover the meaning of the message. It is written in their own language, Aramaic, as we shall see tomorrow, but they cannot make sense of the words. This might remind us of what the Lord speaks through Isaiah: “For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden” (Isa. 29:14, NKJV). After quoting this verse the apostle Paul states: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:20, 21, NKJV).
Some truths are too important to be left for humans to try to figure out for themselves. That’s why God, instead, reveals these truths to us.
As the banquet hall is thrown into confusion because of the mysterious message on the wall, the queen comes and provides direction to the befuddled king. She reminds the king about Daniel, whose ability to interpret dreams and solve mysteries has been demonstrated during the time of Nebuchadnezzar. If Belshazzar were as smart as his predecessor, he would have known where to turn to find the meaning of this mysterious writing. The intervention of the queen proves necessary for the king, who at this point seems utterly at a loss as to what to do next. Her words sound like a rebuke to Belshazzar for having overlooked the only person in the kingdom who can interpret the mysterious writing. And she also gives the king an oral résumé of Daniel: the prophet has the Spirit of the Holy God, light and understanding and divine wisdom, excellent spirit, knowledge; he is capable of understanding, interpreting dreams, solving riddles, and explaining enigmas; he was chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers in Nebuchadnezzar’s time (Dan. 5:11, 12).
At this point, we again wonder why Belshazzar had ignored Daniel. The text does not offer a direct answer to this question, but we presume that at this time Daniel, after serving the king at least until the third year of his reign (Dan. 8:1, 27), is no longer in active service. One factor could be Daniel’s age. He is probably around 80 years old, and the king may have wanted to replace the old leadership with a younger generation. The king also may have decided to ignore Daniel because he did not want to commit himself to Daniel’s God. But whatever the reason or combination of reasons, it remains striking that someone with such a portfolio as Daniel’s could be forgotten so soon.
Forced by the circumstances, the king resorts to consulting Daniel, but he seems to do so with reluctance. This may tell more about the attitude of the king toward the God of Daniel than toward Daniel himself. In turn, Daniel’s response to the king’s offer of reward says a lot about Daniel’s priorities and character. It also is likely that Daniel, knowing the meaning of the mysterious words, realizes just how worthless the reward really is.
Daniel then indicts the king on three counts.
First, Belshazzar totally has ignored the experience of Nebuchadnezzar. Otherwise he would have repented and humbled himself like his predecessor.
Second, Belshazzar has used the temple vessels in order to drink wine and to praise his idols. Here Daniel mentions the six kinds of materials used to make idols in almost the same order noted previously. Third, the king has neglected to glorify God, the One “who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways” (Dan. 5:23, NKJV). Having addressed the failures of the king, Daniel proceeds to the interpretation. Now we learn that the divine graffiti consists of three Aramaic verbs (with the first repeated). Their basic meaning should have been known to the king and his sages—MENE: “counted”; TEKEL: “weighed”; and PERES: “divided.”
With the Medo-Persian army at the gates of Babylon, the king and the sages must have suspected some ominous meaning in that writing, but the sages do not dare to say something unpleasant to the king. Only Daniel proves capable of decoding the actual message into a meaningful statement in order to convey its full meaning to Belshazzar: “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” (Dan. 5:26–28, NKJV; emphasis supplied).
Not exactly words of comfort and cheer.
Whatever his faults, Belshazzar is a man of his word. So, despite the bad news, he is satisfied with the interpretation given by Daniel, which is why he bestows upon the prophet the promised gifts. It appears that by admitting the truth of Daniel’s message, the king implicitly recognizes the reality of Daniel’s God. Interestingly, Daniel now accepts the gifts he has refused before, probably because such gifts can no longer influence his interpretation. Besides, at that point such gifts are meaningless since the empire is about to fall. Thus, probably as a matter of courtesy, the prophet accepts the rewards, knowing all the while that he will be the third ruler of the kingdom for only a few hours.
Exactly as announced by the prophet, Babylon falls. And it does so quickly; while the king and his courtiers drink, the city falls without a battle. According to the historian Herodotus, the Persians dug a canal to divert the Euphrates River and marched into the city on the riverbed. That same night Belshazzar is slain. His father, King Nabonidus, has left the city already, surrendering himself later to the new rulers. Thus, the greatest empire humanity has ever known to this point comes to an end. Babylon, the head of gold, is no more.
“Belshazzar had been given many opportunities for knowing and doing the will of God. He had seen his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar banished from the society of men. He had seen the intellect in which the proud monarch gloried taken away by the One who gave it. He had seen the king driven from his kingdom, and made the companion of the beasts of the field. But Belshazzar’s love of amusement and self-glorification effaced the lessons he should never have forgotten; and he committed sins similar to those that brought signal judgments on Nebuchadnezzar. He wasted the opportunities graciously granted him, neglecting to use the opportunities within his reach for becoming acquainted with truth.”—Ellen G. White, Bible Echo, April 25, 1898.
Further Thought: Large feasts were common in the courts of the ancient world. Kings loved to throw parties with extravagance and luxury to show their greatness and confidence. Although we do not know all of the details of this particular feast, we know that it took place when the Medo-Persian army was poised to attack Babylon. But humanly speaking, there was no reason for concern. Babylon had fortified walls, a food supply for many years, and plenty of water, because the Euphrates River flowed through the heart of the city. So, King Belshazzar sees no problem in having a party while the enemy surrounds the city. And he orders a momentous celebration, which soon degenerates into an orgy. What a powerful testimony to the hubris of humanity, especially in contrast to the power of the Lord. Through Daniel, God tells the king that despite the opportunities he has had to learn truth, “the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified” (Dan. 5:23, NKJV).
“The history of nations speaks to us today. To every nation and to every individual God has assigned a place in His great plan. Today men and nations are being tested by the plummet in the hand of Him who makes no mistake. All are by their own choice deciding their destiny, and God is overruling all for the accomplishment of His purposes.” —Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 536.