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‘A great feast.’
I. The seat of the scorner.—We see in this narrative that Belshazzar had, in the pursuit of a sinful course, reached this seat. He was a man of an entirely different character from the Nebuchadnezzar of the previous lesson, who was not his literal father, but his predecessor on the Babylonian throne. You can discern a marked difference in the bearing of Daniel to him and in his bearing towards this predecessor. He spoke to Nebuchadnezzar with the utmost respect and reverence, but there is curtness and a tinge of contempt in his words to his successor. ‘Let thy gifts be to thyself, and thy rewards to another’ ( Daniel 5:17). He had not the same attachment to the one that he had felt towards the other. Belshazzar lacked any force or strength of character, and appears to have been a man given up to sensual pleasures. This is shown in his arranging a carousal in his capital when an enemy not to be despised was approaching its gates. This reveals a character which such a man as Daniel would regard with contempt. When, during the carousal, his nature was inflamed with his indulgence, he got the idea into his head of using the sacred vessels that had been brought from the Temple of Jehovah at Jerusalem. He at once gave orders that they should be brought and take the place of the others that until now had been employed at the banquet. He evidently imagined that he would in this way show the superiority of the Babylonian gods over the God of the Jews who had been conquered. It was a piece of foolish bravado, behind which there was the spirit of the scorner. He scorned the religion of Jehovah, after His supremacy had been impressively revealed in the tragic experience of Nebuchadnezzar. He had scorned not in ignorance, but in the face of the light that had in this remarkable manner come to him.
II. A dark shadow.—A dark shadow was cast upon the feast just when the revelry had reached its height, and the sacred vessels filled with wine were being circulated among the guests. It was brought by a mysterious hand that appeared and wrote some words on the wall of the banqueting chamber which were not understood. It would appear from the narrative that the prince alone noticed that mysterious hand at this work. Along with the sacred vessels, the golden lamp-stand that had lighted the holy place of the Temple at Jerusalem had been brought, and had been placed, with its lamps burning, against the wall opposite to where the prince sat. It was on the wall behind it that the mysterious words were written with the strange hand. His guilty conscience was stirred, and made him tremble all over. He felt that some announcement of an ominous kind was being made to him by that God in Whose service the lamp-stand had been used. His bravado left him, and terror took hold of him. He could no longer enjoy his carousal. Conscience in the wicked has but to be awakened, as it was now in him, to spoil all their pleasure and to fill them with fear. It brings a dark shadow over them.
III. The message interpreted.—The hand, after doing its work, disappeared, but the writing remained. Belshazzar at once summoned all the magi at his court, and pointing them to the words, asked them to give the interpretation of them. He promised a rich reward to the one who would succeed. But they were all baffled. The words were in a vocabulary with which they were entirely unacquainted. This failure, surrounding the words with all the greater mystery, increased the trouble and fear of the prince. When Daniel, at the suggestion of the queen-mother, was summoned, he at once told him what the meaning of the message was. It was an intimation that the power which he had received from God and had abused was to be taken from him, and that he himself was to be punished. He had lifted himself against God, Who had warned him in the experience of Nebuchadnezzar, ‘in Whose hand his life was, and Whose were all his ways,’ and so the time of his reign was at an end, and his power would pass into other hands.
IV. The message fulfilled.—That very night the city of Babylon was taken by Darius and the Median army, and this scornful prince was slain ( Daniel 5:30-31). While he had been pursuing his sinful course, the instrument of his punishment, found in this Median army, was being prepared. When the culminating point was reached, the instrument was ready and at hand to do its dreadful work. It is ever the same with sinning individuals or sinning communities that slight the Divine warnings and resist the light that is given to them.
(1) ‘Revelry, always out of place, is especially ill-timed when, as here, there is an enemy at the gates. One who was in Paris during the siege of 1870–1 tells us that in a shop a few yards off from a bursting shell he saw a child that had been sent out to buy a pack of cards. To revelry was here added very daring profanity. To drink wine openly out of the Temple vessels that represented so much of the mutual love of God and His people, vessels that were wont to be handled and guarded so tenderly, was to defy to His very face that great God of Israel Whose fame had come to all peoples.’
(2) ‘In a thousand ways we are all numbered and weighed every day. People, as we say, take our measure; they figure us up; they reckon us of more or less account, as men that come up to expectation and rise to our opportunities, or as “bad ha’-pennies,” disappointing, not to be trusted, found wanting. Every one of us is written all over; there is something in our faces, our eyes, our mouths, our voices, our hands, our writing, our walk, our desks, our houses, that “brands us of whose fold we be.” Thus the Clerk in Tennyson’s “Sea Dreams” pursued his master down the street, and far away
“Among the honest shoulders of the crowd,
Read rascal in the motions of his back,
And scoundrel in the supple-sliding knee.”
But it is, after all, a small thing to be judged of a man’s judgment. What does God say and write about us?—that is the question. And it is a fearful thing to be tried by Him and found wanting, to be stripped by Him of our bishopric, and to see our work and our talents and our opportunities given to others. “Let no man take thy crown.” ’
FAILURE TO GLORIFY GOD
‘The God in Whose hand thy breath is, and Whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified.’
Such, in one single sentence, brief, pregnant, inexorable, is the summing up of the case against a doomed man. This in itself was enough. Nothing is here said about the licentiousness, cruelty, or other vices of that Oriental despot: this accusation was enough for him, and it will be enough for us.
There does not appear to be anything so very criminal, after all, in this. It is the sin most frequently committed. There are comparatively few murderers in the world; a large number, undoubtedly, of the dishonest and impure, and so forth; but this is the most common. Whatever other charges may be brought against us, if this one point be proved, it will be enough: the man will stand before his Judge convicted of having utterly failed to accomplish the very end for which he was called into existence.
I. Man exists for the glory of God.—This is a theological assertion which no professing Christian would challenge, though few have an adequate apprehension of its truth. In what sense, then, is the glory of God the end and object of man’s existence? (1) By witnessing to the power of His grace to sustain, defend, and exalt the soul that by faith commits itself to Him, Who is thus seen perfecting His strength in human weakness. (2) By the voluntary acceptance of the Divine Will as the law of human conduct. To such a challenge the child of God responds by accepting the Will of God as the law of his life, and is himself a standing testimony to the perfection of that Will. (3) By so submitting himself here to the Divine Will that he may hereafter triumphantly bear witness, for all eternity, to the perfection of that Divine Will. (4) By the voluntary acceptance of the Divine Will; thus bearing an indirect but eloquent testimony to the perfections of the Divine character, and giving a triumphant answer to Satan—the slanderer of God to man.
II. We shall, perhaps, best understand the full force of the accusation against Belshazzar, and against many now, by considering, How it is possible for us to dishonour God, or to rob God of His glory.—(1) We cannot dishonour God more than by ignoring Him altogether. The worst form of insult is to cut a man dead as you pass him. How many there are who are dishonouring God by ignoring Him! (2) We dishonour God when we repudiate the means of salvation which He, at an infinite cost, has provided for us. We are then acting as though we could dispense with His assistance. Thus you are practically calling the Cross of Calvary a superfluous display of Divine love, and despising the mercy of God by turning your back on His ‘unspeakable gift.’ (3) We dishonour God when we appropriate to some other use that which He has designed for Himself. ‘Know ye not,’ says the Apostle, ‘that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost?’ This ought to be the case with every one of us. Our manhood has been given us in order that we may render it back to God, that it may be inhabited by God the Holy Spirit, that He may dwell in us, conforming us to the image of Christ. Claimed, then, by the Holy Spirit those bodies of yours most certainly are; but are they His temples? Does he inhabit them?
III. Remember, God will not be baffled.—He holds your breath; all your ways belong to Him. Will His purposes be defeated? Having created you for His glory, shall you exist only for His shame? Shall there be a stain upon the escutcheon of the Divine honour by your sin, your failure? Not so! The everlasting God will have His meed of glory out of every man. He desires it in the voluntary offering of the whole man, body, soul, and spirit, to Him; to have it in the joyful, holy dedication of our whole nature to Him, to Whom it belongs. But, if He may not have it so, He will have it otherwise.
It is not the preacher’s province to pronounce judgment. But he is bound to point out what must be the end of a life that does not glorify God. As by the saints in Heaven, so by the lost in Hell; as by the songs of the redeemed, so by the wailing of the wicked—God’s truth shall be vindicated, and God shall be glorified. Which shall it be with you? You must do one of two things—either glorify God by accepting His salvation; or dishonour Him by refusing it. The decision rests with you: which shall it be?
—Rev. Canon Aitken.
‘Weighed … and … found wanting.’
I. God’s scales are adjustable scales.—He weighs in reference to quality as well as quantity. He weighs the lives of men as a lapidary weighs the diamond. He weighs us in reference to our past opportunities, and to what we ought to be. God does not judge all men alike.
II. God not only judges men on account of their past opportunities, but on account of the opportunities of the present, and of the future.—A man is judged not only for the damage he does to his own soul, but for the damage he does to the souls of others. Belshazzar drunk meant that the court was drunk, the army was drunk, and that even the sentinels on the walls were drunk. Thus the king was responsible for the whole.
III. God judges each and all of us independently of anybody else.—Because other people in the Church work iniquity, that is no excuse before God for our wrong-doing. And God’s judgments come when least expected. In one night the banqueting hall of King Belshazzar was turned into a slaughter-house. No man knows when his life shall be weighed in the balances.
THE JUDGE AT THE DOOR
‘In that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.’
Secular historians tell us of the wickedness of this king. Cowardice, too, was one of his faults, for whilst his colleague in the kingdom, who had usurped the first place, and left the second to the son and heir of Nebuchadnezzar (hence Daniel was to be third in the kingdom), went bravely to meet Cyrus, the enemy, in the open field, and for eighteen months defended the city against all his attacks, Belshazzar gave himself up to riot and revelry. His motto was ‘business to-morrow,’ and in response to the warning ‘or death to-night,’ an idle ‘Why, let it come, then!’ He wrought his crowning act of impiety whilst the legions of Cyrus thundered at the gates ( Daniel 5:2); but even then the Judge was at the door.
I. ‘In that night’ a magnificent patrimony was lost.—How often does a foolish son squander the acquisitions of a father’s life! A vast empire was handed down by Nebuchadnezzar. Why was this, but because the lessons of that father’s life had been forgotten? Of this Daniel faithfully reminds him ( Daniel 5:18-24).
II. ‘In that night’ judgment lurked at the door of sin.—The trophies of his father’s power, ‘the golden and silver vessels’ of the Temple, were brought forth, and then came the fearful handwriting on the wall (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:3-7; the antediluvians; Sodom and Gomorrah).
III. ‘In that night’ conscience was roused, and God’s servant sought too late.—Men too often live in sinful riot and folly, and when the ‘Judge standeth at the door,’ and they see the doom written, their knees smite one against another ( 1 Thessalonians 5:6), and they would fain in their fear hearken to the words of wisdom. Too late!
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Daniel 5". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany