Summary: A look at Daniel 5 where we learn to avoid the mistake of Belshazzar and repent while we have the chance.
Situation in Babylon
The situation in Babylon has changed since the last chapter and the last of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar has died and there have been several coups as various different people have seized the throne only to be overthrown. The latest occupant on the throne, Nabodinius has kept the throne for a while but he is currently out of town on extended leave. This may been due to illness or he may be out leading his armies against the Medes and the Persians, but we’re not really sure. In his place his son, Belshazzar is serving as his regent. Thus, when the passage talks about Nebuchadnezzar as a father, it is in the sense of predecessor, which is also a legitimate interpretation of the word. However, he does not appear to be greatly in favour with the people. We know that when Babylon fell, the attackers were mostly welcomed by the people, so Belshazzar can’t have been doing a great job.
We are perhaps given a hint of his incompetence as we begin the story. Belshazzar is having a party with his nobles and government officials. No there’s nothing wrong with parties, Jesus attended quite a few during his life time and even provided the wine for one wedding banquet. But the general picture of this party is that it was more of orgy. Anyway, Belshazzar orders some of the cups that were part of temple treasures from Jerusalem that were captured by Nebuchadnezzar to be brought to the party, where they are used to drink from and toast the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone. As this was going on there appeared a mysterious hand who wrote 4 words on the wall. Belshazzar and all his officials are scared witless. So Belshazzar gets all his magicians and astrologers in and tries to get them to read the writing on the wall. We don’t know whether it was written in a foreign alphabet so that they could read it or whether they just didn’t know what it meant. But in any event the magicians and astrologers were unable to provide what Belshazzar wanted.
At this point someone new comes on the scene. The queen or the queen mother. It is not certain but it is also not unlikely that this may have been the queen of Nebuchadnezzar. Typically, women married younger than men and since Nebuchadnezzar was very highly regarded it is not at all unlikely that if Nebuchadnezzar’s wife was still alive she may have had a place in the palace. Anyway whoever she was, she reminded the Belshazzar about Daniel one of the Jews who had helped Nebuchadnezzar understand visions and dreams. So Daniel is called before Belshazzar and asked to make sense of the writing. Daniel at this time would have been in his 80s or 90s.
Daniel is offered a great reward, to be made third in the Kingdom. An interesting point that acknowledges Belshazzar himself was only second and could therefore only appoint a third. Daniel however refused the reward but he does provides the interpretation. Babylon has been judged and found wanting. Belshazzar knew the stories of Nebuchadnezzar but he did not learn from them and has dishonoured God by using the temple cups in this way. Babylon is to be conquered by the Medes and the Persians. While Belshazzar does reward Daniel, he obviously doesn’t believe him or repent. There is no acknowledgement of God. Maybe he thought Babylon could never fall. It had walls 30 feet high wide enough for chariots to ride along the top. There was a half mile of farmland between the walls and the city. There was supposed to be enough food to survive a 20 year siege. Water was provided by the Euphrates which ran under the walls and through the city.
But Daniel’s word are fulfilled, that very night the Medes and Persians invade. History tells us that they spent two years building a canal to divert the Euphrates. When they completed this they crept under the wall where the river level had dropped. They probably had inside help and it was certainly true that Belshazzar was murdered by his own officials the same night. The Medes and the Persians were welcomed.
Writing is on the wall
It surprises most people when they learn about how many of our common phrases come from the Bible. The story we read this morning is the origin of one of those phrases “The writing is on the wall”. But like so many phrases we don’t use it in precisely the same way as the original story. Normally we use the phrase to mean that disaster or failure is imminent and that it is obvious to everyone, it is plain to see, the writing is on the wall. However, it seems that it was not obvious to Belshazzar. Now to some extent this may have been self deception. We know that Babylon was losing it’s power and Persia was gaining. There had been skirmishes between Persia and Babylon for a while. Babylon itself may have been under siege at the time. We know that the Babylonians welcomed the Persian army. How could the ruler be oblivious to all of this. Even when the writing on the wall appears, the fact that it cannot be read just points to the fact that Belshazzar cannot see the obvious. It does kind of remind you of another ruler from the region, only this one more recent, Sadam Hussein. Who day after day while his nation and power crumbles around him still gets his press guy to go out and say that everything is fine and they are still in control. Completely oblivious to the truth. But for Belshazzar this time the truth was not just about an invading army but it was also the judgement of God.