Read the Passage: Daniel 5
God’s Revelation (5:1–12)
Since the book of Daniel is only twelve chapters long, yet covers 70–80 years of time, the chronology between chapters can be unusual. There are four kings who appear by name in Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar (chs. 1–4), Belshazzar (ch. 5), Darius (chs. 6–9), and Cyrus (chs. 10–12). The events in today’s passage involve Nebuchadnezzar’s son (or, perhaps, his grandson) and successor Belshazzar. History records that Belshazzar was co-regent with another descendant of Nebuchadnezzar named Nabonidus. Chronologically, the events in this chapter occur in the year 539 BC, some 24+ years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar, who passed away in 563 BC. Daniel would have been at least 80 years old. This passage describes a great feast thrown by Belshazzar, likely as a motivational event to encourage morale, for the Medo-Persian army had Babylon surrounded and under siege. Wine is mentioned in order to connect these events with idolatry (cf. Dan. 1:5; Prov. 23:29–35).
Daniel 5:5–9 describes in detail God’s chosen method of confronting Belshazzar’s pride. Essentially, in taking God’s vessels from the Temple, the Babylonians were challenging God’s existence and power. In drinking from the vessels, Belshazzar was likely trying to remind the people of Babylonian’s power to overcome foreign gods, such as Yahweh, thereby giving them hope of defeating the gods of the attacking Medo-Persian army. Two observations about this event are in order: first, the text says that fingers appeared (cf. Dan. 5:5), not an entire hand; second, it says that the fingers inscribed the message in the plaster, not that it was written in ink on the wall. The picture here, then, is one of a gravestone, inscribed by the finger of God—the same finger that wrote the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, including the moral laws prohibiting idolatry (cf. Exod. 31:18; 32:16).
Perhaps the swiftness of God’s judgment, like that upon Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Dan. 4:33), is one reason why neither the king nor any of his advisers could read and make sense of the handwriting on the wall. One wonders if their fear and inability to understand was the result of the miraculous nature of the event, a legitimate lack of ability to translate the writing, or what they suspected the message meant. In any event, it was the queen who finally suggested that Daniel be brought forth to translate the message (cf. Dan 5:11–12). This queen was not the wife of Belshazzar, for his wives were already at the feast (cf. Dan. 5:2–3). Rather, she was either the wife of his co-regent or, more likely, the surviving widow of Nebuchadnezzar. As the queen mother, she would have been present to see Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s two dreams, as well as his other court service.
Daniel’s Interpretation (5:13–29)
When summoned to the king’s presence, Daniel’s interpretation is fairly straightforward. In essence, in Dan. 5:26–28 Daniel tells Belshazzar that God had judged him and that he was about to lose his kingdom to the attacking army. It is surprising, however, that the king rewarded Daniel for this message (cf. Dan. 5:29), against his will (cf. Dan. 5:17), which was surely a recognition of the truthfulness of the judgment. Note several facts about Daniel’s interchange with Belshazzar: (1) the prideful king reminded Daniel that he was a captive—Dan. 5:13; (2) the king had been told that the Spirit of God was upon Daniel—Dan. 5:14; (3) Daniel reminded Belshazzar that Nebuchadnezzar had repented of his sin, implicitly urging Belshazzar to do the same—Dan. 5:18–21; (4) Belshazzar knew of the events surrounding his father Nebuchadnezzar—Dan. 5:22; and (5) Belshazzar failed to glorify God—Dan. 5:23.
Belshazzar’s Judgment (5:30–31)
Daniel’s interpretation of the writing was, “Numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided.” The enactment of this judgment that Daniel gave was quick, coming the very night of this narrative (cf. Dan. 5:30–31). The judgment was swift, like that upon Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Dan. 4:33), and Belshazzar’s response is also like that of his father (cf. Dan. 2:46–48). Historical records say that the way the Medo-Persian army was able to enter fortified Babylon was to divert the waters of the Euphrates River, and then enter the city by walking under the wall on the riverbed. These events transpired on October 16, 539 BC. Note that Darius the Mede became king and Daniel served him as he had the previous rulers and administrations in Babylon. The destruction of Babylon had long been prophesied (cf. Isa. 13, 47; Jer. 50–51; Hab. 2:5–19) and would set the stage for the return to God’s people to Jerusalem.
- What is pride? How serious of a sin is pride? What is the cause of pride? When is pride most likely to be manifest? Can pride ever be acceptable?
- Why do many people who are under God’s judgment have a hard time seeing their own sin and the proverbial “handwriting on the wall” (cf. Col. 2:11–15)?
- After all that Daniel had done by way of service in Babylon, why do you think he had been largely forgotten? Why did the king not call for Daniel immediately?
- How can we confront sin, even in those who are over us in authority, without appearing judgmental and self-righteous?
- When was the last time you reflected on the fact that God holds your life-breath in his hands and controls the whole course of your life (cf. Dan. 5:23)?