In this essay we are taking up Dan. 5:1-31. This is a rather long chapter, but it deals with one incident. The first four chapters all took place in the days of king Nebuchadnezzar. In chapter one, Daniel and his friends were taken into exile in Babylon, when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Israel. Chapter two told of a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, and the miraculous revelation that God gave to Daniel of both the dream and its interpretation. Chapter three told of the miracle of the fiery furnace, when God delivered Daniel’s three Hebrew friends from Nebuchadnezzar’s planned punishment. And chapter four told of another dream of Nebuchadnezzar that predicted a period of insanity that the king would undergo. And that prophecy was fulfilled.
Chapter five is set in a different king’s reign. His name is Belshazzar. This becomes an historical problem, because no Belshazzar appears on the secular king lists of Babylon. This has led scholars to two different identifications of Belshazzar.
Some identify him as Evilmerodach, who was Nebuchadnezzar’s son. He succeeded Nebuchadnezzar to the throne. The primary reason for this identification is that Belshazzar is referred to as Nebuchadnezzar’s son five times in the chapter (vv. 2, 11, 13, 18, 22).
The problem with this identification of Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s son is the fact that the last two verses of the chapter say that Belshazzar died the night of a banquet at which Belshazzar honored Daniel, and that the cause of his death was the conquest of the Medes and Persians. But the conquest of the Medes and Persians did not take place until about 30 years and five kings after Nebuchadnezzar. This has led to a second identification.
The second identification is with the son of Nabonidus. Nabonidus was the ruler of record on the Babylonian king lists, when the conquest by the Medes and Persians took place. However, Nabonidus had a son who was co-regent with at that time. The son ruled in his absence, and he was absent often. Of course the main reason for this identification is to satisfy what is seen in verses 30-31.
However, there is a huge problem with this identification. By satisfying the verses 30-31, it negates the clear testimony of verses 2, 11, 13, 18, and 22 that Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar’s son. Moreover, Nabonidus and his son were not even related to Nebuchadnezzar. They were not his descendants.
So there is a problem either way. But I prefer the identification with Evilmerodach, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, for several reasons. First verse 31 does not actually say that the conquest took place that night. Second, the content of the chapter fits Nebuchadnezzar’s son perfectly. And third, the problem I outlined regarding the other option is more difficult to deal with.
Therefore we will proceed on that conclusion. The situation in the chapter is this. Belshazzar threw a big party, a feast for a thousand of his lords (v. 1). During the feast, Belshazzar got drunk and decided to have some fun. He ordered that the gold and silver cups his father had brought from the Jerusalem Temple be brought into the hall. And then he and his guests drank form them, while praising other gods (vv. 1-4).
Suddenly a hand appeared and wrote something on a white plaster wall (v. 5). This really shook up the king (v. 6)! He immediately called for his wise men to read the writing for him. And he promised that he would give great rewards to any who could interpret the writing (v. 7). But none of them could do it (v. 8).
Then in verse 10, the queen came into the hall. Now the “queen” here is not one of Belshazzar’s wives. They already were in the hall. This is the queen mother, that is, Nebuchadnezzar’s widow and Belshazzar’s mother. She remembers what Daniel had done during her husband’s reign; so she suggests that Belshazzar consult Daniel (vv. 11-12).
Daniel was brought into the hall (v. 13). And Belshazzar made the same promises to Daniel that he had made to the other wise men (v. 16). Then Daniel gave him the interpretation. But first, Daniel reminded Belshazzar of the glory, majesty and downfall of his father Nebuchadnezzar (vv. 18-21). Daniel suggests that Nebuchadnezzar’s glory came from God (v. 18). But Nebuchadnezzar allowed pride to harden his heart; and he lost his throne by losing his sanity (vv. 20-21). Belshazzar would have some memory of that; and it would make him think.
Then Daniel accused Belshazzar of having the same kind of pride his father had (v. 22). Unfortunately Belshazzar’s pride took the form of blasphemy against the true God. He had used the vessels from the Temple to praise other gods (v. 23).
In verses 24-28 Daniel gave Belshazzar the interpretation of the words on the wall. Of course the message was from God (v. 24). And it consisted of three words in Aramaic, with the first of those words repeated.
The reason the wise men could not interpret the message was not because they didn’t understand Aramaic. Aramaic was known in Babylon. It was the cryptic mature of the message that mystified them.
The word “MENE” means “numbered,” and it is doubled for emphasis. Daniel told Belshazzar: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end” (v. 26).
“TEKEL” means “weighed.” And Daniel told Belshazzar in regard to that word: “you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (v. 27).
“PARSIN” (v. 25), or “PERES” (v. 28), means “divided;” and Daniel’s interpretation of that word was: “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.”
Belshazzar’s response is seen in verses 29-31. He gave Daniel the promised rewards in spite of the truly bad news contained in the interpretation. I suppose we can safely say that only the fear of God could cause a man like Belshazzar to reward such bad news. Of course he had no idea that he would die that night.
Well, when we ask what we are to learn from this chapter, the obvious thing is that we must avoid the sins of Belshazzar. And I see three major sins.
First was his drunkenness. Belshazzar’s debauchery did him in.
Second was Belshazzar’s blasphemy. Belshazzar not only worshipped false gods, but he also did so with items consecrated to the true god.
Third was his pride. Belshazzar refused to learn from the past. He did not learn any lessons from his father’s example.