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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Daniel 5

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 5 Belshazzar’s Feast.

When Nebuchadnezzar died he was succeeded by his son Amel Marduk (Evil-Merodach - 2 Kings 25:27-30), who was then succeeded within two years by Nergal-shar-usur (Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13), Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law. He only survived for four years and died leaving on the throne a son, who was a minor, Labashi-Marduk, and within a short while this son had been replaced by Nabonidus, possibly the scion of a noble family of Aramaean stock in Haran, who seized the throne with the help of disaffected people and cemented his position by marrying the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, who bore him a son named Bel-shar-usur (Belshazzar).

Nabonidus eventually left his son Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, to hold the reins of kingship, first in order to conduct campaigns elsewhere, including Arabia, and then in order to spend his time in the city of Teima in Arabia possibly pursuing the study of astrology. He also refused to pay due deference to Marduk, absenting himself for long periods from the Babylonian akitu festival, to the anger of the priests who certainly regarded him with hostility. He favoured the moon god, Sin, rebuilding his temple in Haran. He was also an antiquarian. However, he may in fact have suffered from ulcers as tradition suggests (The prayer of Nabonidus from Qumran), and that would help to explain his retirement, and the remainder may simply have been due to his ‘scholarly’ nature and dislike of functions, which would have been interpreted as ‘odd’, if not worse.

Thus his son ruled for many years in Babylon as a junior co-regent, with the powers, if not the name, of kingship. The title of ‘sharru’ (overall king) was never applied to him and he was rather entitled officially ‘mar sharri’ (son of the overall king). But the title melek (king) was regularly applied to under-kings, and Belshazzar could thus be called ‘melek of Babylon’.

Nabonidus returned to his duties in the last part of his reign and just prior to this incident, was defeated by the forces of Cyrus at Sippar, and fled. At this time Belshazzar was still ruling in Babylon at the time this chapter commences. (Nabonidus later returned to Babylon and was captured).


Verse 1

‘Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.’

The abrupt introduction of the subject is typical of the author (compare Daniel 3:1; Daniel 4:1). Belshazzar (mentioned as Bel - shar - usur on cuneiform tablets, where he is always called ‘son of the king’) was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, and son of Nabonidus, the latter later in life going into semi-retirement in Arabia to study astrology, leaving Belshazzar to act in his place as king. A Persian document says of Nabonidus ‘he freed his hand. He entrusted the kingship to him. Then he himself undertook a distant campaign’, demonstrating that it was not the first time he had done it. Decrees were issued in their joint names, and their names were regularly associated in various ways. Thus while not strictly ‘sharru’ (overall king) Daniel is justified in calling him ‘melek’, ruler, as he also does Cyrus’ general, Darius the Mede, for he exercised kingly authority and was more than just a governor.

The ‘thousand’ is a round number meaning ‘a good number’. The word ‘a thousand’ was used among other things to depict a larger military unit, as against ‘a hundred’ or ‘a ten’. Large feasts like this were typical of oriental royal feasts. Indeed there were much larger ones. That a great feast was held on the night of the fall of Babylon is attested by both Herodotus and Xenophon. During the feast Belshazzar became inebriated. The drinking of wine was a large part of such feasts.

This gathering took place while the city of Babylon was surrounded by enemies, for the Medo-Persians had invaded Babylonia under one of Cyrus’ generals named Ugbaru, and the city was virtually under siege. But due to their strong defences they were confident of holding out.

‘Drank wine before the thousand.’ The king would be seated alone at his table on a raised platform as befitted his status.


Verse 2

‘Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives and his concubines, might drink from them.’

We are not told of any reason why he did this, but he seemingly knew of them and no doubt persuaded himself in his drunken stupor that it was time they were used. It was probably his means of declaring the power of Babylon, and possibly his own defiance of a God Who had helped his grandfather, and Whom he felt had let him down, at a time when that power was being fatally undermined. The fact that they were sacred vessels suggests that this was a direct act of blasphemy, for such sacred things were generally treated with respect. It is clear that Daniel no longer held such high office under Nabonidus and Belshazzar, for he was not called to the feast and is later mentioned as though he was in retirement. It would not be unusual, given the changes in rulership that had taken place. Perhaps also he had previously in times past used his influence against their use.

‘While he tasted the wine’ probably means while Belshazzar was under its influence.

The presence of the important womenfolk, including Belshazzar’s wives, is attested elsewhere with regard to Babylonian drinking feasts, even though they were feasts of great lasciviousness. Their presence, and the general behaviour at the feast, added to the blasphemy of using the sacred vessels. The concubines would be lesser wives of the harem who were of common stock.

‘Nebuchadnezzar his father’ simply means that Nebuchadnezzar was his ancestor. He was in fact his grandfather. The word translated does not strictly mean ‘father’. It means ‘one through whom you trace your descent’. Compare ‘your father Abraham’ (Genesis 28:13; Genesis 32:9). (It can also be used in other ways more loosely. Compare the words of Jesus, ‘you are of your father the Devil’ - John 8:44).


Verse 3-4

‘Then they brought the golden vessels which were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives and his concubines, drank in them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood and of stone.’

The blasphemy of the situation is starkly brought out. We cannot doubt the intent of the king. The golden vessels were those connected with the sanctuary itself (see Daniel 1:2). And in the midst of that lascivious, drunken feast they drank from them and drunkenly sang songs of worship to man made gods, gods made of earthly materials with no intrinsic life. The description is deliberately derisive.

His act was an insult to the God of Israel, perhaps a deliberate slight on the God Who had so influenced Nebuchadnezzar, who had seemingly never used the vessels in such a way. In Belshazzar’s drunken mind there may have been in mind that ‘the Most High God’ was failing them in their hour of need, so that they would show Him how much they cared.


Verse 5

‘In the same hour came forth the fingers of a man’s hand and wrote opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace. And the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.’

Excavation has revealed that the walls of the Babylonian palace were covered with white plaster so that any dark object would be highlighted against it in the light of the great lampstand. Only the king is actually mentioned as seeing the hand that wrote. But it does not necessarily mean that no other saw it, although it is possible. Perhaps the emphasis is rather on the fact that the blasphemous king, who had ordered the blasphemy, also saw the hand because the message was for him. We can imagine the mysteriousness of the scene. The dark hall, the flickering of the lamps, the inebriated condition of those present, the boisterous singing, and then the awed silence as they became aware of what was happening in the flickering light from the lampstand.


Verse 6

‘Then the king’s face was changed on him, and his thoughts upset him greatly, and the joints of his limbs went slack and his knees smote one against another.’

The effect on the king was dramatic. He was absolutely terrified. The picture is of someone in a blue funk. This serves to confirm that his attitude was one of deliberate blasphemy, for he now recognised that the God Whom he had been blaspheming was here to deal with him.


Verse 7

‘The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans and the soothsayers. The king spoke, and said to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever will read this writing, and show me its interpretation, will be clothed with purple, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” ’

He too called in the wise men of Babylon who were in the besieged city, and offered gifts to those who could give him the meaning of the writing on the wall. To be clothed in purple was to be treated royally. It suggested that the person was to be made of exalted rank. The gold chain was a symbol of high office. It was probably such as could not be worn unless granted by the king. And this was confirmed by the fact that the person would be made third in rank after Nabonidus and Belshazzar.

Such an honour might in fact have backfired, for someone so honoured might well have been a target for the invading forces. But no one dreamed that the city would be taken so quickly.

It may be asked why Daniel did not enter with the wise men. The answer is probably that he had been replaced as master of the wise men, either when Nabonidus succeeded to the throne, or before. New favourites loyal to the new regime replaced old ones, and Daniel was probably not recognised by the ancient wise men as a genuine ‘Chaldean’. He had thus seemingly been honourably retired, or given a position of lesser authority.


Verse 8-9

‘Then all the king’s wise men came in. But they could not read the writing or make its interpretation clear to the king. Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his face was changed on him, and his lords were perplexed.’

None of the wise men of Babylon were able to read and decipher the writing. Whether this means that the script was unintelligible, or just that its meaning was difficult, does not really matter, although the former is probable as they could at least have made a guess at the latter. The result was that the king, who had had time to recover himself, once again went into a blue funk, although not quite so badly as before. His lords also did not know what to think or say. All knew that it spelt something ominous.


Verses 10-12

‘The queen by reason of the words of the king and his lords came into the banquet house. The queen spoke and said, “O king live for ever. Do not let your thoughts trouble you, nor let your face be changed. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods, and, in your father’s days, light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him. And the king Nebuchadnezzar your father, the king I say, your father, made him master of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans and soothsayers, forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams and showing of dark sentences and dissolving of doubts (literally ‘of knots’) were found in that same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show you the interpretation.” ’

‘The queen’ may be the wife of Nabonidus, and daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, but it is equally as likely that it means the mother of the queen, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar. In many ancient countries the queen of a past monarch was held in high esteem and had considerable authority (compare 1 Kings 15:13; 2 Kings 11:1-3; 2 Kings 24:12; Jeremiah 13:18; Jeremiah 29:2). She came in because someone had brought news to her of what the king and lords were saying. The fact that she could enter of her own accord into the presence of the king and his assembly demonstrates her high authority.

She remembered that great man Daniel who had so helped Nebuchadnezzar. She was of an age to do so. And she was concerned for her son (grandson). So she told him about Daniel. She said that he was a man full of the spirit of the holy gods, and that he had deep understanding and wisdom, and light where there was darkness for others. Indeed because of these things Nebuchadnezzar had made him master (Rab) of the wise men. He could interpret dreams, explain words which no one else could, and resolve puzzles and doubts (knotty problems). He was just the man to help Belshazzar. Let him be called for.


Verses 13-16

‘Then was Daniel brought in before the king. The king spoke and said to Daniel, “Are you that Daniel who is of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Judah? I have heard of you that the spirit of the gods is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in you. And now the wise men and enchanters have been brought in before me, that they might read this writing and make its interpretation known to me. But they could not show the interpretation of the thing. But I have heard of you, that you can give interpretations and resolve doubts. Now if you can read the writing, and make its interpretation known to me, you will be clothed with purple, and have a chain of old around your neck, and you shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” ’

Note the first description of Daniel. ‘Of the children of the Captivity of Judah’. This was the description seemingly used when the intention was to be polite (compare Daniel 2:25 and contrast Daniel 3:12). It explained their presence in the land and that they were there at the king’s ‘invitation’. The use of his Hebrew name may have been because that was the name that Daniel asked to be announced, or it may be that that was the name by which he was referred to in the dossier probably handed to the king. That he had seen such a dossier is suggested by the fact that Belshazzar knew what he was.

Note also the continual emphasis on Daniel’s qualities. All who read them knew that this was because God was with him. It was not glorifying Daniel but God, for God was the source of all his wisdom. And the same promise of high reward was given to him, if he could only solve the meaning of the writing.

On the other hand Belshazzar himself is revealed as at least neutral towards the gods. He omits the adjective holy. This fits in with his treatment of the holy vessels. He treated them with some disdain. He was more aware of his own status. The ‘I’ in Daniel 5:16 is emphatic.


Verse 17

‘Then Daniel answered and said before the king, “Let your gifts be to yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless I will read the writing to the king, and make known to him its interpretation.”

Daniel politely states that he wishes for no reward. He is not here to benefit from what he is about to do. This probably impressed the king with the idea that such a man would speak only the truth. Besides such refusals were often seen as polite acceptances among orientals. But the reader is aware all the time that the promise is anyway an empty one, for by the morrow there will be no kingdom.


Verse 18-19

“O you who are king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your 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.”

We are probably to see in this ‘you who are king’, followed by the description, both an indication of the pride that Belshazzar felt in his position, and a reminder to him that Nebuchadnezzar was far, far greater than he. For Nebuchadnezzar had ruled over all, and no Medan or Persian had dared to trespass on his empire. Furthermore there was even now a king greater than Belshazzar, his own father. He was ‘melek, not ‘sharru’. But there had been no one greater than Nebuchadnezzar. He truly was the supreme lord, in whose presence all the known world trembled. He had total control, the power of life and death over his whole empire, and the power to give honour or to remove honour which really counted for something. Daniel had cause to remember both.

It was true that in a sense Belshazzar was like this. His word was law where he was and he had already shown that he could dispose of honours. But his power was not total. He had always to be aware that his father may step in and alter what he did. When his father had forbidden the annual akitu festivals from being held, Belshazzar had dared not interfere. He dared not take for himself the title ‘sharru’ (overall king). (Although Nabonidus and Belshazzar appear to have been on good terms. But it did not mean he could disregard his authority). There were limits to his power. And furthermore he would be very much aware that those ‘people, nations and languages’ were now mainly controlled by another, the great Cyrus, who would soon be knocking on the gates of Babylon. He may appoint a ‘third ruler’, but over what?

Note also the repetition of phrases and ideas from earlier chapters, denoting the unity of the whole (compare Daniel 3:4; Daniel 3:7; Daniel 3:29; Daniel 4:1; Daniel 4:22; Daniel 4:34; Daniel 4:36).


Verse 20

“But when his heart was lifted up, and his spirit 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 rules in the kingdom of men, and that he sets over it whoever he will.”

In contrast with Nebuchadnezzar’s glory was his demeaning. Because he had too great an opinion of himself and his own importance, he lost both his throne and his glory. Instead of his cosseted splendour he had matted hair and claws, instead of being surrounded by friends and admirers he was driven out of men’s company, instead of brilliance of mind he lost all rationality, instead of his palace his dwelling was with the wild asses, those untameable wild creatures that roam the open deserted places. Instead of sumptuous food, he ate grass. Instead of heated and splendid accommodation he was covered with dew. Then only did he learn that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and hands it over wherever it pleases Him.


Verse 22-23

“And you his descendant, O Belshazzar, you have not humbled your heart; though you knew all this. But you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven, and they have brought the vessels of his house before you, and you, and your lords, your wives and your concubines, have drunk wine in them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of brass, iron, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor know. And the God in whose hand your breath is, and whose are all your ways, you have not glorified.”

With brave and powerful words Daniel stood before the distressed monarch with words that at any other time would have ensured his own death, and pointed out that he had done things even worse than those done by Nebuchadnezzar.

He was without excuse. He knew what had happened to his grandfather. And yet he had not learned his lesson. Instead of being humble before the God of heaven he had deliberately blasphemed His name, he had arrogantly and deliberately appropriated what was His in order to insult Him, and had not only allowed his inebriated courtiers, wives and concubines to drink wine from them, but had used them for the worship of mindless, blind, deaf images made of earthly metals by man.

The implication is that these gods were thus in contrast to the Lord of heaven, He Who was the living God, Who was the source of men’s breath, He Who heard and saw all things. And He with His all seeing eye and all hearing ear had seen and heard what Belshazzar had done. His crime was greater far than Nebuchadnezzar’s. And yet what folly. It had all been against the One Who held his life in His hands, the One Who had given him breath and could just as easily take it away, and he had done it in order to worship those who could do neither. What then could he expect this message to mean?

We must see these words as intended to make him repent, even at this late moment, otherwise why torment him with them? Perhaps he had a special feeling for this wayward son of his great friend. And they were also meant for his lords, and for the wives and concubines. All would soon stare death in the eyes, and all needed to seek the mercy of the God of heaven. Although they did not know it, for many of them this was to be their last chance.

And this also all applies to us who read these words, who constantly forget that we are faced with the living God, and that the things of this world and the things we often worship are as nothing. For us too one day there will be the writing on the wall, and for some, sooner than we might think.


Verses 24-28

“Then was the part of the hand sent from before him, and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed, MENEMENETEKELUPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing:

· MENE - God has numbered your kingdom and brought it to an end.

· TEKEL - you are weighed in the balances and are found wanting.

· PERES - your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.

‘Then’ indicates that the hand came because of the treatment of the holy vessels. The hand is clearly stated as having come from ‘before the Most High’. What it wrote would be all in one sequence as above, for there were no spaces between words. We do not know whether it was actually in Aramaic or not (if it was why could the Chaldeans not at least read it?). It is therefore pointless to consider any alternatives other than the interpretation given. Indeed transliterated it would be M’N’M’N’TKLUPRSN.

However these interpretations do depend to some extent on word play so that we can assume that in whatever language the words were given in the word play was possible. This could come about in Aramaic because only the consonants would be written and thus different readings could be obtained by using different vowels on the same consonants.

M’N’ comes from the root to ‘count’ or ‘number’, thus meaning ‘It is numbered’. Daniel interprets it as ‘God has numbered your kingdom and brought it to an end’, that is He has determined the days of its length and has thus brought it to a conclusion. The repetition of Mene confirms that the fulfilment is certain and sure. Thus Belshazzar learned that his kingdom was finished.

TKL comes from the root to ‘weigh’. Thus ‘It is weighed’. Daniel interprets it as meaning ‘you have been weighed in the balances and have been found wanting’ (compare for such weighing Job 31:6; Psalms 62:9; Proverbs 16:2). Thus Belshazzar learned that God had passed judgment on him and that he had failed the test. He was found wanting. This was why his kingdom was finished, because morally and religiously he had proved unworthy.

PRSN comes from two possible roots, ‘peres’ meaning ‘it is divided’ (‘parsin’ is the dual or the plural), and ‘paras’ which means Persians. Daniel therefore interprets ‘your kingdom is divided (peres) and given to the Medes and the Persians (paras).’ The idea of ‘divided’ is not that the kingdom will be divided into two, but that the whole of what is in it will be split up among the invaders, and the empire would be dissolved. It is important to note that the writing according to Daniel only speaks of the Persians (PRSN - n is often redundant). Thus by ‘the Medes and the Persians’ Daniel means the Persian empire. There is no room here for the idea of two separate empires. The writing speaks of one Persian empire under Cyrus, made up of the Medes and the Persians, that will divide up among its men the spoils of Babylon, and dissolve the universality of the Babylonian empire.

This demonstrates the ancient nature of the account. At this stage it is still ‘Medes and Persians’ (compare Daniel 6:8; Daniel 6:12), but not for long. By the time of Esther it would be ‘Persians and Medes’ (Esther 1:19. See also Daniel 5:3; Daniel 5:14; Daniel 5:18).


Verse 29

‘Then Belshazzar commanded and they clothed Daniel with purple, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler of the kingdom.’

Belshazzar was faithful to his oath. He gave Daniel all the honours that he had promised, and his status was proclaimed within the banqueting hall where were gathered the leading lords of the realm, together with the wise men called earlier. He probably did not realise quite how soon the prophecy would be fulfilled, for while Belshazzar and his lords sang on, celebrating Daniel’s appointment as men will, Cyrus’ general Ugbaru was unknown to them diverting the river Euphrates that ran through Babylon into an ancient lake, so that his soldiers could enter the city along the partly dried up river bed. The city was taken almost without a fight. The Persians were in fact probably welcomed by the priests of Marduk who were sick and tired of their god being largely ignored, and the people woke up to find them in charge of the city.


Verse 30-31

‘In that night Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans was slain, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty two years old.’

The king was probably slain in what fighting there was, along with many of his lords, but in general the Persians followed an enlightened principle of mercy in their dealings with captured peoples and encouraged them in the worship of their own gods, thanks to Cyrus himself, which was why in all probability they were welcomed by the priests of Marduk.

‘Darius the Mede’. There is no suggestion here that he was king of a separate Medan empire at the same time as Cyrus. It simply tells us that he was a Mede (and in Daniel 9:1 even more emphatically ‘of the seed of the Medes’). The so-called ‘Medan empire’ of Daniel is an invention of scholars out to prove a theory. There is no evidence for it whatsoever, and it has to be reached by ignoring the clear meaning of certain other passages.

No Darius has been found in inscriptions connected with the new dawn of Babylon, but it is quite possible that he was known under another name and that Darius was a throne name. In meaning it is probably connected with the New Persian word Dara, meaning "king." Herodotus says that it means in Greek, Erxeies, coercitor, "restrainer," "compeller," "commander." We should note that the implication here is that this Darius succeeded to Belshazzar’s position as ‘melek of the Chaldeans’, and thus an under-king (compare Daniel 9:1). Belshazzar was not the sharru. Nabonidus was still alive.

Various suggestions have been made. One is that it was a name taken on by Cyrus when he defeated the Medes, or by his son Cambyses, to cement his position over the Medes (but the latter was certainly not sixty two years old). Another is that Darius is another name for Gubaru (Gobryas), one of Cyrus’ generals, who was later appointed by Cyrus to rule Babylon. (Darius may not have ‘received the kingdom’ immediately). It has been suggested that Gubaru is possibly a translation of Darius. The same radical letters in Arabic mean "king," "compeller," "restrainer." This was a different man from Ugbaru, the governor of Gutium and Persian commander who led the assault against Babylon and died shortly afterwards, but we do not know how old Gubaru was.

A connection with Cyrus could be supported by the fact that Cyrus was related to the Medes, was about sixty two years old when he conquered Babylon, and by the reading ‘in the reign of Darius, that is in the reign of Cyrus the Persian’ (Daniel 6:28). This latter could, however, also support the suggestion that it was Gubaru, revealing him as under-king to Cyrus. We should note in contrast that Darius II is called ‘Darius the Persian’ (Nehemiah 12:22) which may suggest that a ‘Darius the Mede’ was known historically to Nehemiah.

Another explanation has been that Darius is another name for Cyaxares II, the son of Astyages, who according to the Greek writer Xenophon was Cyrus’ uncle and father-in-law, and whom Cyrus might have retained temporarily as a figurehead king and have appointed over Babylon to please the Medes. It was captured by a Medan general.

But there may well be here a figure we as yet no nothing about from inscriptions. Daniel only refers to his first year (Daniel 9:1; Daniel 11:1) and then does not refer to him again for dating. He turns instead to reference to Cyrus (Daniel 10:1). This suggests that Darius may not have held the position for very long and would therefore be unlikely to be mentioned in inscriptions. His only claim to fame was his connection with Daniel.

Interestingly in the Harran stele of Nabonidus mention is made of the ‘king of the Medes’ in 546 BC, four years after Cyrus became king of the Medo-Persian empire.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Daniel 5:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/daniel-5.html. 2013.

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