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DANIEL CHAPTER 5: AT THE FEAST OF BELSHAZZAR

by R. H. Boll

 

Robert H. Boll (1875-1956)

Robert H. Boll (1875-1956)

Four times the ruling head of Babylon was made to feel the hand of God–very gently the first time (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream); a bit more severely the second time (the episode of the fiery furnace); the third time with a much harder stroke, which sent Babylon’s great king to company with beasts for “seven times.” But we now come to the fourth lesson which was catastrophic and final.

After Nebuchadnezzar’s death Evil-Merodach, his son, ascended the throne (2 Kings 25:27f). The next ruler of Babylon mentioned in the scriptures is Belshazzar. The “critics” once contended that such a person as “Belshazzar” never lived. However (as has happened more than once) archaeological research uncovered facts which decisively showed that the critics were wrong and the Bible was right. This Belshazzar was not the king of Babylon, but co-regent with (and under) his father, Nabonidus–a fact which also is duly indicated in Daniel.

The narrative of Belshazzar’s feast and the handwriting on the wall, is one of the most familiar, as it is also one of the most dramatic and thrilling of all the stories of the Bible. The great feast which Belshazzar made to a thousand of his lords; the wine-drinking (referred to five times in the first four verses, [38] which explains to some extent the recklessness of the occasion); the daring blasphemy which Belshazzar’s wine-inflamed brain conceived and executed–to prostitute the sacred vessels of Jehovah’s Temple (brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar) not only to purposes of drunken revelry, but to the praise of Babylon’s idols (v. 4); these make up the setting of the scene. In the height of the feast their drunken gaiety was suddenly interrupted. The shouting and the laughter died. At his elevated table the king sat as one transfixed, staring at a spot over against the candlestick. There he saw the fingers of a man’s hand writing mysterious words upon the plaster of the wall. The hand vanished; the writing remained. The king’s countenance was distorted with fright, and he was trembling in every part of his body: “the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.” Then he called out for his enchanters, Chaldaeans, and soothsayers and promised that whichever one of them would decipher the handwriting on the wall should be arrayed with the royal insignia (a robe of purple, and a chain of gold about his neck) and proclaimed as third ruler of the kingdom (for as we have seen, Belshazzar himself was holding the rank of second ruler).

In vain the alluring reward: the wise-men of Babylon could not read the writing. Then the queen (the queen-mother, no doubt, and probably the wife of Nabonidus, the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar) who remembered (perhaps herself revered) Daniel, came in to comfort the terror-stricken Belshazzar and to tell him in well-chosen words of Daniel, who at this [39] time seems to have been generally forgotten. (Read her splendid little speech in verses 10-12.) So Daniel was brought in. He must have been quite an old man by this time–in his eighties, near to ninety. But God was not yet done with His servant by any means; and, as is often the case, God made him to bring forth fruit in his old age. The king greeted Daniel, told him the reason why he was called, and repeated to him the offer of the reward he had held out to the “Chaldaeans.” (Dan. 5:13-16.) Now came Daniel’s turn. With lofty scorn he waved aside the king’s promises; but nevertheless he would make known to him the interpretation of the writing. First, however, he had a personal word to say to the king, who, against better light, had gone out of his way to insult the God of heaven.

O thou king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father the kingdom, and greatness, and glory, and majesty: and because of the greatness that he gave him, all the peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he raised up, and whom he would he put down. But when his heart was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: and he was driven from the sons of men, and his heart was made like the beasts’, and his dwelling was with the wild asses; he was fed with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; until he knew that the Most High God ruleth in the kingdom of men, and that he setteth up over it whomsoever he will. And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thy heart, though thou knewest all this, but hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou and thy lords, thy wives and thy concubines, have drunk wine from them; and thou [40] hast praised the gods of silver and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear nor know; and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified. Then was the part of the hand sent from before him, and this writing was inscribed.

Brave words and boldly spoken were these. We note quite a difference in Daniel’s manner toward this wicked and worthless descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, as compared with what had been his attitude toward the old king himself. (Dan. 4:19-27.) And now comes the interpretation of the mysterious handwriting:

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and brought it to an end. TEKEL; thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES;1 thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

Belshazzar was as good as his word: Daniel was arrayed in the purple robe, the gold chain placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed third ruler of the kingdom. The fact that Belshazzar did this after such a speech from Daniel indicates a spirit of repentance. And that is a thing God never overlooks (Ps. 51:17). Although it came too late to avert his fate and the fate of his kingdom, it will yet make a difference when he comes to stand before the judgment throne of the God he had defied.

But it was too late–later than Belshazzar or anyone else in Babylon thought it was. Already the besieging armies of the Medes and Persians–yea, while the godless revel was going on in Belshazzar’s royal [41] festal hall–they were entering the impregnable city through the open gates in the bed of the Euphrates. “In that night, Belshazzar the Chaldaean king was slain; and Darius the Mede received the kingdom.” Babylon had filled up her cup, and the God of heaven had placed the world-power into the hands of another Gentile Nation. The kingdom of the head of gold had passed to that of the arms and breast of silver.

 

SPECIAL POINTS AND PERSONAL THOUGHTS

The fall of Babylon marked a great world-crisis. This event was foretold by God’s prophets in detail: the time (70 years after Judah’s captivity, Jer. 25:12-14); the nation that should conquer the kingdom of Babylon (the Medes and Persians, Isa. 13:17, 18; 21:2; 51:11; the conqueror, Cyrus, whom God called by name 200 years before he was born, Isa. 45:1-3); the feast of wine, the panic also and helplessness of the Babylonians, dumbfounded by a sudden, unexpected stroke, (Jer. 51:30-32, 39, 40)–all these things were before announced by the all-knowing Spirit who spoke in the prophets, and were literally and exactly fulfilled.

Prophecies unfulfilled. Closely interlaced with the predictions which were certainly fulfilled on that night when Belshazzar was slain and Darius the Mede received the kingdom, there are prophecies which did not then find fulfillment. The fall and desolation of Babylon, the prophets declared, was to be sudden, utter and complete, and forever; as if when a stone has been cast into the waters; as when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Never again should she be inhabited; no Arabian should pitch his tent there, nor shepherd make his flock to lie down there. Not a stone of her ruins should ever be used for any building. (Jer. 51:26, 60-64; Isa. 13:19-22.) These predictions do not appear to have been realized either in that conquest of Babylon by the Medes and Persians, nor at any time since. It is also noteworthy that these prophecies of Babylon’s utter and final fall are always closely linked with the world-wide judgments of the great day of Jehovah, and the freeing of Israel from Gentile overlordship, her glorious restoration, and the [42] blessing consequent of the whole world. (See Isa. 13 and 14; Jer. 50:2-5, 20, 34; 51:5-10.)

What explanation of these facts? It is not necessary to do much explaining. It is better to adapt our minds to the word of God than to try to do the opposite. The humble believer takes God at what He says, “Hath he said, and will he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and will he not make it good?” God never fails to redeem every pledge. He will not let any of His words fall to the ground. If anything has not been fully fulfilled, rest assured it will be. And He will not thank anyone for trimming or twisting His word to help Him out.

Will Babylon come back? In view of the incomplete fulfillment of some of the prophecies of Babylon’s fall, some students have inferred (not altogether unwarrentedly or unreasonably) that the end of the age would witness the rebuilding of the ancient city of Babylon, to be the world-capital under the reign of the Beast, the “Man of sin,” the head of the last Gentile world-power. Others fervently oppose such view, and think rather that the wider prophecies of Babylon’s destruction will be fulfilled in the “mystic Babylon” of Rev. 17, 18, which they take to be Rome. We need not attempt to speak dogmatically on such a point. But if the language of the prophecy is such as to demand that the city of Babylon shall once more appear before that “great and terrible day of the Lord” comes, then so shall it be; and it will be a light matter with God to bring His word to pass.

The Hand is writing on the wall of our own country also. This land was originally settled by a people of faith, God-fearing and earnest, who had fled from the ecclesiastical oppression of Europe to seek liberty in the wilderness. Their faith in God was the secret of their endurance and strength. The U. S. government also had its beginning in recognition of God. Our constitution was born in an atmosphere of acknowledgment of almighty God. Benjamin Franklin, though himself reckoned as a liberal, offered a motion for daily prayers in the convention which assembled after the Revolutionary War, to frame the Federal Constitution; and in the speech that he made he said in support of the proposition, “We have been assured, sirs, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building, no better than the builders of [43] Babel.” Times have changed. The country is shot through with atheism, infidelity, crime, immorality, selfishness and covetousness. And the Hand is writing. Only a national repentance can avert the impending doom.

There is many a sinner whose Mene, Tekel, Upharsin is being written; many who like Belshazzar have no idea how late it is; many who slumber along in a careless living and who will not be awakened till the thunder-claps of judgment arouse them from their fateful sleep. In Knowles Shaw’s good old hymn the lesson is brought home to our hearts:

“At the feast of Belshazzar with the thousand of his lords,
When they drank from golden vessels, as the Book of Truth records;
In that night when they revelled in the royal banquet hall,
They were seized with consternation–’twas the hand upon the wall.”

“So our deeds are recorded–there’s a hand that’s writing now;
Sinner give your heart to Jesus, to His royal mandate bow;
For the day is approaching, it must come to one and all,
When the sinner’s condemnation will be written on the wall.”

 

“‘Tis the hand of God that is writing on the wall,
‘Tis the hand of God on the wall,
Shall the record be Found wanting–
Or shall it be Found trusting–
While that Hand is writing on the wall?” [44]

 

1 Peres is the root-form of Parsin. [41]

 

 

  1. H. Boll was Editor of the print edition of Word and Work from 1916 to 1956.

 




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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 corinthians 1:3-4