Bible Commentaries
Daniel 5

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


D. Belshazzar’s feast ch. 5

Belshazzar came to power some nine years after Nebuchadnezzar died. [Note: For a brief history of the Neo-Babylonian Empire between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar’s reigns, I recommend Archer, "Daniel," pp. 69-70.]

The events of this chapter therefore occurred about 66 years after those in chapter 1, and about 36 years after those in chapter 4. Daniel received the revelation in chapter 7 in the first year of Belshazzar (553 B.C., Daniel 7:1), and the revelation in chapter 8 in Belshazzar’s third year (551 B.C., Daniel 8:1). Thus chapter 5 follows chapters 7 and 8 chronologically by 14 and 12 years respectively. Daniel would now have been in his 80s.

Verse 1

Some older critical scholars claimed that Belshazzar was never a king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. [Note: E.g., H. H. Rowley, "The Historicity of the Fifth Chapter of Daniel," Journal of Theological Studies 32 (October 1930):12.] However, modern discoveries have shown that Belshazzar acted as king during his father’s frequent and prolonged absences from Babylon.

"The last actual Chaldean king, Nabonidus, ’entrusted the kingship’ in 539 B.C. to his son Bel-sar-usur during his ten-year absence from Babylon, returning as the threat from Cyrus grew." [Note: Goldingay, p. 106. See also N. W. Porteous, Daniel: A Commentary, p. 76; Young, pp. 115-19; Keil, pp. 162-79; Leupold, pp. 208-13; and Whitcomb, pp. 70-72.]

Banquets the size described in this verse also drew the attack of critics. Yet the ancient historian Ktesias wrote that Persian kings frequently dined daily with 15,000 people (cf. Esther 1). [Note: See Leupold, pp. 214.]

Later we shall read that Belshazzar hosted this banquet on the night the city of Babylon fell (Daniel 5:30-31). The invading Medes and Persians, led by Ugbaru, commander of the Persian army, would have already taken the surrounding countryside, and everyone in the city would have known of their intentions. However, Babylon the city had not fallen to an invading army for 1,000 years because of its strong fortifications. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Babylon occupied about 14 square miles with a double wall system enclosing a moat between the two walls. The outer wall was 87 feet thick, wide enough for four chariots to drive on side-by-side. It was 350 feet high with 100 gates, plus hundreds more towers that reached another 100 feet above the walls. [Note: Herodotus, 1:178-83.]

Belshazzar’s confidence in the security of his capital is evident in his banqueting and getting drunk while his enemy was at his door. His name, which means "Bel [also known as Marduk] has protected the king," [Note: Pentecost, p. 1344.] may have increased his sense of invulnerability. Herodotus also mentioned that a festival was underway in Babylon when the city fell. [Note: Herodotus, 1:191.]

"With the armies of a conqueror pressing at the capital this deputy ruler took refuge in an orgy of wine." [Note: Baldwin, p. 119.]

Verses 1-4

1. Belshazzar’s dishonoring of Yahweh 5:1-4

Verses 2-4

Nebuchadnezzar was Belshazzar’s grandfather rather than his father, but the original language commonly used "father" in the sense of ancestor.

"Neither in Hebrew, nor in Chaldee, is there any word for ’grandfather,’ ’grandson.’ Forefathers are called ’fathers’ or ’fathers’ fathers.’ But a single grandfather, or forefather, is never called ’father’s father’ but always ’father’ only." [Note: Pusey, p. 346.]

Evidently the vessels taken from the Jerusalem temple had been stored as trophies of war and not used previously (cf. Daniel 1:2). Their presence in the warehouses of Babylon was sufficient humiliation of Yahweh who, in the minds of the Babylonians, could not prevent their theft. However, using these vessels in praise of Babylon’s gods was even more sacrilegious than just possessing them.

"Have you noticed how in recent years the world has stepped into the ’sanctuary’ of faith and laid its ruthless hands on some of the things we hold most sacred? Our day has seen this impious sacrilege carried into many other realms, as well. Is God unmindful of this? Will He not visit for such defiance?" [Note: Feinberg, pp. 65-66.]

Again, as in chapters 3 and 4, a pagan king set himself up as superior to Yahweh. Perhaps Belshazzar did what he did to strengthen nationalistic pride among the Babylonians as well.

The description of Babylon’s gods as gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone probably reflects the Hebrew perspective of the writer (cf. Daniel 5:23). For the Israelites, the gods that Belshazzar honored were no gods at all.

Verse 5

Like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar received an omen from God. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case it was two dreams (chs. 1; 4). In Belshazzar’s, it was handwriting on a wall. The night of revelry became a night of revelation. [Note: Campbell, p. 59.]

"In the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace archeologists have uncovered a large throne room 56 feet wide and 173 feet long which probably was the scene of this banquet. Midway in the long wall opposite the entrance there was a niche in front of which the king may well have been seated. Interestingly, the wall behind the niche was covered with white plaster as described by Daniel, which would make an excellent background for such a writing." [Note: Walvoord, p. 120. Cf. Montgomery, p. 253; Kraeling, p. 327; and Young, p. 120.]

Verses 5-9

2. God’s revelation to Belshazzar 5:5-9

Verses 6-7

The "conjurers" that Belshazzar called to help him were magicians. These "Chaldeans" were scholars who knew the lore of the Babylonians. The "diviners" were astrologers. These were only three of the many groups of wise men that the king summoned (Daniel 5:8).

Clothing someone in "purple" meant giving him royal authority (cf. Esther 8:15). This "gold chain" (necklace) would have had symbolic as well as monetary value. Belshazzar evidently offered to promote anyone who could interpret the mysterious writing, to "third" ruler of the kingdom, because he himself was the second ruler under his father, Nabonidus. Thus this was the highest official reward he could offer.

Verses 8-9

The writing appears to have been in the Aramaic language. Therefore it seems that the wise men’s difficulty in understanding it may have been due to its interpretation, rather than just the meaning of the words (cf. Daniel 5:14-16; Daniel 5:25).

Verse 10

Normally we would identify the queen as Belshazzar’s wife. However, there are a number of reasons to prefer the view that she was really the "queen mother." She could even have been the surviving wife of Nebuchadnezzar. [Note: Ibid., p. 122.] Belshazzar’s wives had been participating in this banquet (Daniel 5:2), but this woman now entered it apparently for the first time. She also spoke to the king more as a mother than as a wife. [Note: Arthur Jeffery, "The Book of Daniel, Introduction and Exegesis," in The Interpreter’s Bible, 6:426.] Moreover, she spoke as one who had personal acquaintance with Daniel’s earlier interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream (cf. Daniel 4:8-9; Daniel 4:18). Probably this woman was Belshazzar’s mother and the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. [Note: Archer, "Daniel," p. 72.] The queen mother was often a significant figure who exerted considerable influence in ancient courts (cf. 1 Kings 15:13; 2 Kings 11:1-3; 2 Kings 24:12; Jeremiah 13:18). This woman proceeded to do for Belshazzar what Arioch had done for Nebuchadnezzar, namely: to bring Daniel to the king’s attention (cf. Daniel 2:25).

Verses 10-12

3. The queen’s counsel 5:10-12

Verses 11-12

As before, Daniel had not accompanied the other wise men whom the king had summoned (cf. Daniel 4:6-8). The reason for this is unclear, but the effect in the event and in the narrative is that it sets Daniel off as unique. Clearly Belshazzar did not know Daniel personally. Perhaps Daniel had left public service by this time.

When really severe crises arise, it is often the man or woman of God that others turn to for answers.

Verses 13-16

4. Belshazzar’s request of Daniel 5:13-16

The king had heard of Daniel by reputation, even though he had not met him before (Daniel 5:13). He recognized him as a person whose extraordinary ability came from some divine source (cf. Daniel 4:8; Daniel 4:18). Perhaps it was because Daniel was a Jew that Belshazzar did not know him. However now, the king was quite willing to give even this Jewish exile all the honors that he had formerly promised his wise men. Here was a worshipper of the God-that Belshazzar had been dishonoring in his banquet but who, ironically on this night of all nights, might prove superior to the Chaldeans. The king’s willingness to reward a Jewish exile shows how desperately Belshazzar wanted to learn the meaning of the enigmatic message on the wall.

"As in the previous instances in Daniel 2, 4, the wisdom of the world is demonstrated to be totally unable to solve its major problems and to understand either the present or the future. Daniel as the prophet of God is the channel through which divine revelation would come, and Belshazzar in his extremity was willing to listen.

"Too often the world, like Belshazzar, is not willing to seek the wisdom of God until its own bankruptcy becomes evident. Then help is sought too late, as in the case of Belshazzar, and the cumulative sin and unbelief which precipitated the crisis in the first place becomes the occasion of downfall." [Note: Walvoord, p. 124.]

Verse 17

Daniel’s reply to the king was in every sense a sermon, and a powerful one at that. [Note: King, p. 148.] The prophet began by declining the offered gifts. This had the effect, whatever Daniel’s reason for doing so may have been, of helping Belshazzar realize that these gifts did not influence his interpretation of the writing.

Verses 17-24

5. Daniel’s rebuke of Belshazzar 5:17-24

Verses 18-23

Daniel reminded Belshazzar, and undoubtedly everyone else in the room, of the lesson in humility that God had taught the king’s forefather, Nebuchadnezzar (ch. 4). The Most High God had given his grandfather his authority, and had taught him that he was under His greater sovereignty. Nebuchadnezzar’s pride had led him to behave arrogantly, as Belshazzar was doing by drinking from the sacred vessels of Yahweh-the Most High God. Even though Belshazzar knew all about this, he had not humbled his heart before the Lord of heaven and glorified Him. Therefore the God who held Belshazzar’s life and his ways in His hand, had sent the hand to write the inscription on the wall.

"One of the most amazing spectacles in this world is how little men really profit from the judgments of God." [Note: Feinberg, p. 69.]

Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah used the title "the God of heaven" to describe Yahweh because this was the title of the chief Syrian god and a title that other people in the Persian Empire gave to their chief god (c. Ezra 1:2; Ezra 5:11-12; Ezra 6:9-10; Ezra 7:12; Ezra 7:23; Nehemiah 1:4-5; Nehemiah 2:4; Nehemiah 2:20; Daniel 2:18-19; Daniel 2:34; Daniel 2:44; Daniel 5:23). This title implies God’s transcendence over all. [Note: Waltke, An Old . . ., p. 375.]

Verse 24

Nebuchadnezzar had heard a voice from heaven while he was outdoors (Daniel 4:31), but Belshazzar saw a hand from heaven indoors. Both forms of revelation have been extremely rare throughout history, but these occasions in the Book of Daniel involved leaders of the greatest nation on earth.

Verses 25-28

6. Daniel’s interpretation of the writing 5:25-28

Scholars have wearied themselves trying to figure out how Daniel got his interpretation from these three apparently Aramaic words. They have been as unsuccessful as Belshazzar’s original wise men were. It seems best to me simply to take Daniel’s interpretation at face value, even though we may not be able to understand completely how he arrived at it. It has been said that Daniel could interpret these words because he recognized his Father’s handwriting. [Note: Campbell, p. 64.]

This much seems clear. The words all referred to measures of weight. [Note: Goldingay, pp. 110-11; Baldwin, pp. 123-24.] Daniel interpreted the consonants by adding vowels, which are absent in Aramaic, as in Hebrew, and made each word a passive participle. The Aramaic word mene means "mena," or with different vowels, menah, "numbered." Daniel understood this word to signify that the number of years that God had prescribed for the Neo-Babylonian Empire had expired. Its repetition probably stressed the certainty of this point. Joseph had told Pharaoh: "Now as for the repeating of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it means that the matter is determined by God, and God will quickly bring it about" (Genesis 41:32). Tekel (cognate with the Hebrew "shekel") when changed to tekal means "weighed." God had weighed Belshazzar and had found him deficient; he was not the ruler that he should have been because of his flagrant refusal to acknowledge the Most High God’s sovereignty (Daniel 5:22). Uparsin means "and half-shekels." Peras means "broken in two" or "divided" and relates to the division of Belshazzar’s kingdom into two parts, one part for the Medes and the other for the Persians. However, paras means "Persia." Persia was the dominant kingdom in the Medo-Persian alliance. Thus prs had a triple meaning. The meaning of these words describing various weights would have been unintelligible to the Chaldean wise men. Even if they had supplied the vowels that Daniel did, and came up with the words "numbered," "weighed," and "divided"-they would have been meaningless without a context.

"The important consequence of this identification of the combined Medo-Persian Empire as the second kingdom in Daniel’s series of four (embodied in Nebuchadnezzar’s four-part dream-image in ch. 2) is that the third kingdom must be the Greek one; therefore, the fourth empire must be the Roman Empire-which, of course, did not actually take over the Near East till 63 B.C., a century after the Maccabean uprisings. Therefore, this handwriting on the wall demolishes the Maccabean date hypothesis, which insists that nothing in Daniel prophesies any event later than the death of Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 B.C., a hundred years before Pompey annexed Palestine-Syria to the Roman Empire." [Note: Archer, "Daniel," p. 74.]

Ironically, as Daniel interpreted God’s verdict against Babylon, the Medes and Persians were already pouring into the city.

"As God had judged Nebuchadnezzar’s pride by removing him from the throne, so He would judge Belshazzar’s pride by taking the kingdom from him and giving it to another people." [Note: Pentecost, p. 1346.]

Verse 29

Belshazzar kept his promise (Daniel 5:16), though Daniel’s honors only lasted a few hours at most, typical of the honors of this world. The king’s response is surprising. We might have expected him to execute Daniel for confronting him publicly. Perhaps his response indicates that he was drunk or that he repented. If he repented, his repentance was too late to prevent judgment from falling.

"In its rise to power the Babylonian Empire had conquered Jerusalem, taken its inhabitants into captivity, looted its beautiful temple, and completely destroyed the city. Yet this empire was to have as its last official act the honoring of one of these captives who by divine revelation predicted not only the downfall of Babylon but the course of the times of the Gentiles until the Son of man should come from heaven. Man may have the first word, but God will have the last word." [Note: Walvoord, p. 129.]

Verses 29-31

7. Daniel’s rise and Belshazzar’s fall 5:29-31

Verse 30

Herodotus, Xenophon, Berossus, the Babylonian Chronicles, and Cyrus (on the Cyrus Cylinder) all described the fall of Babylon in writings that have remained to the present day. [Note: See Goldingay, pp. 106-7; James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 305-6, 315-16; D. W. Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times, pp. 81-83, 92-95; Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, 1:20; and J. M. Cook, The Persian Empire, p. 31.] Isaiah and Jeremiah had predicted Babylon’s fall (Isaiah 13:17-22; Isaiah 21:1-10; Isaiah 47:1-5; Jeremiah 51:33-58). The Persians diverted the water from the Euphrates River that flowed south through Babylon into an ancient lake located to the north. This allowed them to walk into the city on the riverbed and scale the undefended walls that flanked the river. [Note: For a plan of the city, see any good Bible dictionary or encyclopedia, or Kraeling, p. 322.] Herodotus pictured Babylon’s fall as follows:

"Hereupon the Persians who had been left for the purpose at Babylon by the river-side, entered the stream, which had now sunk so as to reach about midway up a man’s thigh, and thus got into the town. Had the Babylonians been appraised of what Cyrus was about, or had they noticed their danger, they would never have allowed the Persians to enter the city, but would have destroyed them utterly; for they would have made fast all the street-gates which gave upon the river, and mounting upon the walls along both sides of the stream, would so have caught the enemy as it were in a trap. But, as it was, the Persians came upon them by surprise and took the city. Owing to the vast size of the place, the inhabitants of the central parts (as the residents at Babylon declare), long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had chanced, but as they were engaged in a festival, continued dancing and revelling [sic] until they learnt the capture but too certainly." [Note: Herodotus, 1:191.]

"The downfall of Babylon is in type the downfall of the unbelieving world [cf. Revelation 17-18]. In many respects, modern civilization is much like ancient Babylon, resplendent with its monuments of architectural triumph, as secure as human hands and ingenuity could make it, and yet defenseless against the judgment of God at the proper hour. Contemporary civilization is similar to ancient Babylon in that it has much to foster human pride but little to provide human security. Much as Babylon fell on the sixteenth day of Tishri (Oc. 11 or 12) 539 B.C., as indicated in the Nabonidus Chronicle, so the world will be overtaken by disaster when the day of the Lord comes (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 [cf. Psalms 2:4-6; Revelation 19:15-16]). The disaster of the world, however, does not overtake the child of God; Daniel survives the purge and emerges triumphant as one of the presidents of the new kingdom in chapter 6." [Note: Walvoord, p. 131. For the Nabonidus Chronicle reference, see John C. Whitcomb, Darius the Mede, p. 73.]

The record of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel is the story of an overbearing king who experienced temporary judgment, but the story of Belshazzar is one of a sacrilegious king who suffered permanent judgment. Xenophon also recorded Belshazzar’s death. The night of revelry that had become a night of revelation now turned into a night of retribution. [Note: Campbell, p. 65.]

"Historically, Belshazzar perhaps fell because he could not handle a political crisis; but more profoundly, as Daniel sees it, he fell because of his irresponsibility before God . . ." [Note: Godlingay, p. 116.]

Verse 31

Belshazzar suffered execution that very night, and Darius the Mede became the ruler of Babylonia (cf. Daniel 2:21). The writer introduced Darius in Daniel 5:31, which is the first verse of chapter 6 in the Hebrew Bible, and he is the prominent king in chapter 6.

"The references to Darius the Mede in the book of Daniel have long been recognized as providing the most serious historical problem in the book." [Note: H. H. Rowley, Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires in the Book of Daniel, p. 8.]

Critics, including Rowley, claim that history allows no room for a person by this name. However, Archer suggested that "Darius" may have been a title of honor in the Persian Empire, as "Caesar" was in the Roman Empire-or, I might add, as "Pharaoh" was in Egypt. [Note: Archer, "Daniel," pp. 18-19, 76.] If this was so, "Darius" could refer to another man known in history by another name or names. The most likely possibility seems to me to have been Cyrus. [Note: D. J. Wiseman, "Some Historical Problems in the Book of Daniel," in Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel, pp. 12-14.] This would account most naturally for the fact that Daniel referred to Darius as "king" in chapter 6. Furthermore, it would have been very unusual for a subordinate of Cyrus to divide the whole empire into 120 satrapies (Daniel 5:1). Darius was probably called "the Mede" because he was of Median descent (Daniel 9:1).

Another possibility is that Darius is another name for Gubaru (Gobryas), a ruler of Babylon under Cyrus. [Note: Archer, "Daniel," pp. 76-77; Whitcomb, Darius the . . ., p. 35; and Robert Dick Wilson, Studies in the Book of Daniel, pp. 128-29. Cf. Wood, The Prophets . . ., p. 348. Young, p. 183, believed Darius was a viceroy under Cyrus.]

"In his dealings with his Babylonian subjects, Cyrus was ’king of Babylon, king of lands.’ . . . But it was Gobryas the satrap who represented the royal authority after the king’s [i.e., Cyrus’] departure [from Babylon]." [Note: A. T. Olmstead, The History of the Persian Empire, p. 71.]

This view distinguishes Gubaru from Ugbaru, the governor of Gutium and Persian commander who led the assault against Babylon. A third view is that Ugbaru and Gubaru are different spellings of the same man’s name. [Note: William H. Shea, "Darius the Mede: An Update," Andrews University Seminary Studies 20 (Autumn 1982):229-47. See also idem, "The Search for Darius the Mede (Concluded), or, The Time of the Answer to Daniel’s Prayer and the Date of the Death of Darius the Mede," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12:1 (Spring 2001):97-105.]

"But the syllable GU is written quite differently from UG in Akkadian cuneiform." [Note: Archer, "Daniel," p. 76.]

A fourth view equates Darius the Mede with Cambyses, Cyrus’ son, who ruled Persia from about 530 to 522 B.C. [Note: Charles Boutflower, In and Around the Book of Daniel, pp. 142-55.] Darius the Mede was definitely not the same person as Darius the Great (Darius I) who was much younger and ruled Persia later, from 521-486 B.C., nor was he Darius II who ruled even later. [Note: See the discussion of the problem in Longman and Dillard, pp. 377-81.]

"It must be emphasized that there is no established fact which contradicts a person by the name of Darius the Mede reigning over Babylon if Darius is an alternate name for a known ruler." [Note: Walvoord, p. 134.]

Persian Kings during the Exilic and Postexilic Periods
Cyrus559-530Ezra 1:1; Ezra 4:5; Daniel 5:31 to Daniel 6:28; Daniel 9:1; Daniel 11:1
Darius I521-486Ezra 5-6; Haggai; Zechariah
Xerxes (Ahasuerus)486-464Ezra 4:6; Esther
Artaxerxes I (Artashasta)464-424Ezra 4:7-23; chs. 7-10; Nehemiah; Malachi
Darius II423-404Nehemiah 12:22

"This chapter illustrates the involvement of king and kingdom in one destiny. Belshazzar’s blatant disrespect for the Most High God was all of a piece with the national character, indeed with our human condition, as it is depicted in Psalms 90. Though human days are numbered (Daniel 5:10), few number them for themselves and ’get a heart of wisdom’ (Daniel 5:12). Belshazzar in this chapter presents a vivid picture of the fool, the practising [sic] atheist, who at the end can only brazen it out with the help of alcohol which blots out the stark reality." [Note: Baldwin, p. 125.]

"The whole chapter is an instructive symbolic assessment of the perils and limits, the sources and responsibilities, of power in human affairs." [Note: Paul Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics, p. 311, footnote.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Daniel 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.