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Bible Commentaries
Daniel 5

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter relates the events of the last night of the Babylonian empire. The first thing that the Christian student confronts in the study of this chapter is a barrage of assertions by critical commentators that the events here recorded are “unhistorical.” This should produce no uneasiness whatever upon the part of believers. The events here reported are unassailable; and this may be viewed as the only accurate report of that final fatal night of the power of Babylon.

The contradictory, inaccurate, and confusing secular records of the sixth century B.C. have, of course, been made the grounds of denying the historical accuracy of this chapter. The key fact to remember, however, is that there are numerous ancient writers who have mentioned the fall of Babylon, including: Berosus, Abydenus, Herodotus, Xenophon, and Josephus, and that, “They contradict each other!”(F1) Josephus contradicts Berosus; Herodotus and Zenophon agree with Daniel in vital points; statements by Berosus and Abydenus are known to be unhistorical, etc., etc. The point of this is simply that the extra-Biblical records of events related to this chapter are an unqualified can of worms. There is no single author of that remote period who could be trusted above the simple and straightforward record we have before us in this chapter. Moreover, there has never been a single charge against the Book of Daniel that could not be paralleled by as many or more charges of inaccuracy against any other author in human history who treated the subject discussed here. Daniel is far more trustworthy than any other writer whose works have come down to us.

“The historical credibility of this narrative is established, because opponents of its genuineness are not in a position to find, in behalf of their assertion that the Biblical account is fiction, any situation that can be comprehended as accounting for it in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes and the times of the Maccabees.”(F2)

The words of Young on this subject are: “The fifth chapter of Daniel, though it has often been attacked as inaccurate in its statements, is nevertheless noteworthy for its accuracy.”(F3) In the text we shall note a number of passages once alleged to be inaccurate which are now known to be exactly true.

The summary of the chapter is: the king’s insolent deed (Daniel 5:1-4); the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5:5-9); the queen-mother’s suggestion (Daniel 5:10-12); the king’s request (Daniel 5:13-16); Daniel’s admonition to the king (Daniel 5:17-24); Daniel’s interpretation of the handwriting (Daniel 5:25-28); and the sequel (Daniel 5:29 to Daniel 6:1).

Verses 1-4

“Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden 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 therefrom. Then they brought the golden vessels that 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 from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, or iron, of wood, and of stone.”

The date of this remarkable banquet was the night in which Babylon fell, usually given in the history books as in 538 B.C. A Babylonian text (presumably of Herodotus) was cited by Millard, which gave the date of this event as October 12, 539 B.C.(F4)

“Belshazzar the king” It was at one time the arrogant assertion of Biblical enemies that there never was any such king as Belshazzar during the final years of Babylon. Andrews was boasting as recently as in 1924 that, “The statements of the historians and the evidence of the Inscriptions make it abundantly clear that at the time of the conquest the last king of Babylon was Nabonidus.”(F5) He even went on to say that it is “impossible” that Belshazzar could have been king at that time.

But, as has been the case so frequently, in the case of blatant and confident denials of God’s Word, archeologists have excavated from the mud of Mesopotamia dramatic and undeniable proof of the Bible’s accuracy. “One of the cuneiform documents expressly states that Nabonidus entrusted the kingship to Belshazzar.”(F6) It follows, of course, that if a man has been entrusted with the kingship and is exercising all of the authority and privileges of autocratic rule, then he should properly have been addressed as “king,” exactly as in this chapter. That Nabonidus the “king’s” father was still living, and that Belshazzar’s true status was that of a sub-king while his father was either absent or incapacitated appears in Belshazzar’s promise to make Daniel the “third ruler” in the kingdom, indicating that Belshazzar himself was the “second ruler” in the kingdom, under his father, the true king, Nabonidus. Thus the Book of Daniel fits the true facts of history perfectly.

Charges are also leveled against this passage because of the reference to Nebuchadnezzar as “the father” of Belshazzar. This is no problem whatever. In the Hebrew usage of the term, the word father is often used for grandfather, as in Genesis 9:20-25, where Canaan, a grandson, is called Noah’s son. Also, father is also used for ancester. Jeffery admitted that this usage of father in such a loose sense was common, but went on and called such an explanation “unsatisfactory.”(F7) “That this true explanation is indeed “unsatisfactory” to critics is of no concern at all to believers. Owens declared unequivocally that, “Daniel 5:2 refers to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s predecessor.”(F8)

“And drank wine before the thousand” Jeffery stated that this might mean either of two things: (1) the king, by drinking first, opened the drinking phase of the banquet, or (2) that he drank before the thousand in the sense of doing so in their presence.(F9) It is our opinion that the king probably did both.

The critical allegation that Belshazzar’s actions here “were very similar to those of Antiochus Epiphanes,”(F10) is absolutely untrue. Antiochus robbed the treasury of the temple, but he did not do so for pleasure, as did Belshazzar here, but because he found himself in dire financial straits. Besides that, look at the rewards that Belshazzar heaped upon Daniel. We might go so far as to say that nothing in this passage is remotely suggestive of Antiochus Epiphanes. Frequent references to this alleged resemblance by critics is merely their device of trying to import such a likeness into the chapter. Keil and many other great scholars have exposed this error repeatedly.

Belshazzar’s behavior here was incredibly arrogant and sinful. To begin with, he was not actually king in the full sense of that word. “Belshazzar here had insolently and arrogantly taken to himself a higher position and authority than were rightfully his. Many elected officials of church and state have done likewise.”(F11) “Gobryas, Cyrus’ great general, was at that very moment making his way up the bed of the Euphrates, its waters diverted by a canal, leaving the gates of Babylon unguarded.”(F12)

The bringing of the women into the banquet hall, probably at a point in the feast when the drinking had begun, is a strong suggestion of the immorality and debauchery which usually attended such affairs. Keil tells us that both Herodotus and Xenophon confirm the fact of Babylon’s fall upon the occasion of a drunken feast in Babylon.(F13)

Verses 5-9

“In the same hour came forth the fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king’s countenance was changed in him, and his thoughts troubled him; and the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the soothesayers. The king spake and said unto the wise men of Babylon, Whosoever shall read this writing, and show me the interpretation thereof, shall be clothed with purple, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom. Then came in all the king’s wise men; but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation. Then was king Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him, and his lords were perplexed.”


“Excavations in Babylon have uncovered a great hall more than 50 feet by 160 feet;(F14) and, “Robert Kildewey’s excavations at Babylon have uncovered just such a large banqueting hail with walls of white plaster.”(F15) This is mentioned to emphasize the minute accuracy of everything mentioned in this chapter. Therefore, there cannot be any excuse for Jeffery’s comment that, “The fact that this chapter does not agree with actual history is of no importance.”(F16) It is our contention that such a remark is irresponsible, inadmissible, and unacceptable to a believer. The critical proposition that, “Such stories were not written to teach history, but to teach a religious lesson,”(F17) and that the authors were totally unconcerned with historical accuracy is a base falsehood. It is our conviction that, at last, the critical community have totally over-reached themselves by accepting a premise so false and ridiculous.

If Biblical writers tried to teach religious lessons by relating false stories, they themselves were fraudulent, dishonest, and untruthful. One cannot help wondering if Biblical critics themselves are guilty of alleging “falsehoods” in order to teach religious lessons. After all, the critical approval of such methods surely raises the question. Thus it is clear that allegations like the one just cited actually tell us far more about the critics than they tell us about the Bible.

“The third ruler in the kingdom” (Daniel 5:7). This, of course, implied that Belshazzar himself was only the second ruler; and, “This is a mark of accuracy such as would be almost inconceivable if the Book of Daniel were a product of the 2nd century.”(F18) As Culver stated it, “No Jew of Palestine in the 2nd century could possibly have written a thing like this.”(F19)

It is important to note that Belshazzar’s actions were especially wicked because of the contempt he showed by his actions against the true God. The sacred vessels dedicated to the service of Jehovah and robbed out of the Temple by Babylonian conquerors were used by this arrogant and lustful king as instruments of his sensuous pleasure, while at the same time he was praising the idol gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.

The Jewish opinion to the effect that Belshazzar had deliberately decided to insult Jehovah because of a miscalculation on his part is quite interesting. Jeremiah had prophesied that the Jewish captivity would end in 70 years; and it is alleged that Belshazzar mistakenly calculated that the 70 years were ended, that the victory over Jehovah and his people was complete, and that it was at that time perfectly safe for him to insult and blaspheme Jehovah. Below is given the possible manner of his miscalculation:

“Belshazzar figured on the basis of Jeremiah’s statement that Belshazzar had been in the kingdom some 23 years at that time (though not king all of that period), that the extent of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign was 45 years, and that Evil-Merodach had been king two years, thus making up the full seventy.”(F20)

Belshazzar, however, made the same mistake some make today in counting Israel’s captivity from the beginning of Israel’s deportation instead of from the completion of it.

“Bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the soothesayers” (Daniel 5:7). “Once more these monumental frauds appeared. Not only did they not know God (1 Corinthians 1:21) in “their wisdom”, they knew little else.”(F21)

Verses 10-12

“Now the queen by reason of the words of the king and his lords came into the banquet house: the queen spake and said, O king, live forever; let not thy thoughts trouble thee, nor let thy countenance be changed. There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the holy gods, were found in him; and the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made him master of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and soothesayers; forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and showing of dark sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.”


The appearance of the queen and her addressing the king without being solicited to do so attest, “...The remarkable accuracy of this chapter. In Babylonia, the queen-mother held the highest rank in the royal house.”(F22) The queen who appeared in this scene could not have been the king’s wife, for the “wives and concubines” of the revelers were already present. Barnes gives us the name of this queen. “She was Nitocris and could not fail to have been well acquainted with the character and services of Daniel.”(F23) This grand lady might well have been a believer in the true God; and, as Jeffery stated, “Although gods is used in the plural form both in this place (Daniel 5:11), and in Daniel 4:8, the sense is singular.”(F24) One of the primary words for God in the Old Testament is [~’Elohiym], and the term is plural; but as in the case here, the meaning is singular.

We have already noted that “father” in these passages might mean any one of a number of things. Culver believed that in this passage it only meant “Father in a legal sense,”(F25) basing his view upon the probable fact of Belshazzar’s having been “adopted” into the ruling dynasty. Other scholars appear to be certain that Belshazzar was actually a blood descendant of Nebuchadnezzar through Evil-Merodach, and therefore he was really the grandson of the famous Nebuchadnezzar. Until more is certainly known of the history of that whole period, it is a waste of time to wade through all of the guesses and theories.

Verses 13-16

“Then was Daniel brought in before the king. The king spake and said unto Daniel, Art thou that Daniel, who art of the children of the captivity of Judah, whom the king my father brought out of Judah? I have heard of thee, that the spirit of the gods is in thee, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in thee And now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me, that they should read this writing, and make known unto me the interpretation thereof; but they could not show the interpretation of the thing. But I have heard of thee, that thou canst give interpretations, and dissolve doubts: now, if thou canst read the writing, and make known to me the interpretation thereof, thou shalt be clothed with purple, and have a chain of gold about thy neck, and shalt be the third ruler in the kingdom.”


The account here is probably abbreviated. Notice that the king mentions Daniel’s being of the children of the captivity of Judah. Did the king suddenly remember this, or did this information appear in the words of the queen somewhat earlier? The text does not tell us.

The bankruptcy of the human family concerning any reliable knowledge of the future, or of the supernatural, is pitifully apparent in such a passage as this. Babylon was the head of the ancient world at the time of this episode; and yet its king, calling for the wisest men on earth, as they were alleged to be, found them absolutely ignorant of any information that could have been valuable to the king. But, is it any different now? The answer is NO! All that men know of the future, or of the will of Almighty God, is found in the Bible. Only within its sacred pages may one learn how the lost fellowship with our Creator may be restored and how a mortal may be rescued from the certain destruction that is coming upon all of Adam’s rebellious race. As regards such verities as life and death, time and eternity, heaven and hell, life after death, the resurrection of the dead, the eternal Judgment, the eternal destiny of men, or any other of those most important problems confronting the human mind, our brilliant educators, philosophers, and intellectuals are on an absolute parity with the magicians, the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothesayers of ancient Babylon. Only in the Word of God may one find the “Words of Life.” Despite this, the world rushes on in the gathering shadows neglecting its only true source of that knowledge which is able to save the soul.

Verses 17-24

“Then Daniel answered and said before the king, Let thy gifts be to thyself, and give thy rewards to another; nevertheless I will read the writing unto the king, and make known to him the interpretation. 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 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 God ruleth in the kingdom of men, and 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 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 his hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, thou hast not glorified. Then was the part of the hand sent from him, and this writing was inscribed.”


Daniel’s refusal of the king’s gifts has been interpreted in radically different manners. Some have seen it as an affirmation by Daniel that he would interpret the writing without regard to gifts; and others have declared that, “Daniel’s speech to the king here was insulting, and if he had made such a speech he surely would have been punished.”(F26) We reject such a view, and also the same author’s contention that the majority of this passage in Daniel 5:17-24 is an interpolation, basing that notion on the absence of most of this from the Septuagint. It is possible, however, that this abbreviated account may have lost some of its color by the omission of the formalities and stereotyped salutations that usually marked such court appearances. Regarding the gifts, Daniel later accepted them in spite of the disclaimer that stands here. Barnes’ view of this passage appears to be the best. He said, “Daniel (in refusing the gifts) meant merely that, ’I do not act from hope of reward,’ intimating that what he did would be done from a higher motive than a desire for reward or office.”(F27)

Verses 25-28

“And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE TEKEL, U - PHARSIN. 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; thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.”


In the interpretation, it should be noticed that Daniel read the last word as Peres, instead of U-Pharsin. The reason for this was that, “The `U’ in Aramaic is a simple connective such as `and.’ The `Ph’ is an aspiration of `P’ to accommodate the preceding vowel sound. The passage reads: `Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Peres, the Mene being repeated for emphasis.’“(F28)

The words could be pointed in two different directions, thus making two different meanings of the passage possible. The two meanings are (1) “a mina, a mina, a half shekel (Tekel = shekel), and half minas.”(F29) (2) The other meaning is that given in the passage above. Keil noted, however that “divided” in the meaning of PERES does not mean merely, cut in two. “The word means to divide into pieces or to dissolve the kingdom.”(F30) We would say that it was to be shattered or smashed.

Of particular interest is the announcement that the kingdom will be given to “The Medes and Persians.” This cannot mean that part would be given to Medes and another part to the Persians. “The writing indicates that the Babylonian kingdom would be turned over to the Medes and Persians; here the Medes and Persians are taken to be a single unit. Also, the Medes and Persians are noted as combined in Daniel 6:8; Daniel 6:12; Daniel 6:15.”(F31) This makes it positively certain that no “Median Empire” was developed between Babylon and the Greeks. Only this one government, that of the Medes and Persians, existed between Babylon and the Greeks, meaning that the Greek empire was the third, not the fourth world kingdom identified with the Great Image in Daniel 2.

The meaning of those three mysterious words of this passage may be reduced to only three words in English, as follows: NUMBERED, WEIGHED, and DIVIDED, or NUMBERED, WEIGHED, AND SMASHED.(F32) Culver preferred, COUNTED, WEIGHED, and DIVIDED.(F33)

Daniel 5:28 proves conclusively that the author of Daniel believed that the successor to Babylon was a dual kingdom, including two national elements; he was not guilty of supposing that the second and third empires of Daniel 2 were the Median and Persian powers respectively. Unbelieving criticism is `hung’ by this verse!”(F34) Amen!

Verse 29

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


According to the rules of courtesy in those times, it would have been improper for Daniel to have refused the honors bestowed upon him by Belshazzar; and Daniel’s acceptance here of the gifts mentioned in Daniel 5:17, indicates that Daniel meant no disrespect whatever to the king in that passage.

A very valuable comment on this is:

“If Belshazzar was intended to represent Antiochus Epiphanes, certainly the portrait here is utterly unlike anything that we know of Antiochus. He was cruel and treacherous and would never have kept such a promise as the one which king Belshazzar here kept with reference to Daniel.”(F35)

The whole critical conspiracy of making the Book of Daniel a product of the second century self-destructs upon a careful study of the Book of Daniel. It is not merely an erroneous theory, but an impossible one.

Verses 30-31

“In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old.”


Darius did not take the Median kingdom; Darius the Mede took the kingdom for the Medo-Persians. No “Median kingdom” is in the passage. It was just like saying that Eisenhower the Texan took the presidency! or that William the Frenchman took the kingdom of England in 1066.

Of course, the critics are certain that there never was such a king as Darius; and it is difficult to know just what the passage here indicates. We believe that the passage stands without any support whatever from secular history. Truth revealed in God’s Word needs no outside support. Faith can wait on the ultimate answer here. Many ancient kings had more than one name; and it is possible that Darius was another name for Cyrus whom the secular historians identify as the ruler who captured Babylon. Culver concluded that Darius was a sub-king under Cyrus.(F36) “Some authorities have identified Darius with Gobryas (of which the name may be a corruption), who is said to have commanded the attacking army at the siege of Babylon, and as viceroy of Cyrus to have taken over the government of the city, appointing governors, etc.”(F37) Either of these very plausible and reasonable solutions of the problem could be correct; but no believer need feel any embarrassment by a little problem like this. It is the truth that Darius the Mede received the kingdom!

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Daniel 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/daniel-5.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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