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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Daniel 5

Verses 1-9

Belshazzar’s Feast and Condemnation (5:1-31)

The Feast (5:1-9)

Feasts like the one held by Belshazzar for one thousand of his top lords and ladies were not uncommon in the ancient world. A tradition still lingers and is supported by considerable evidence that it was during such a drunken debauch that Cyrus conquered Babylon itself. This was done by the simple military tactic of diverting a river which flowed under the city’s wall, after which it was easy enough to get inside the wall by walking on the dry bed of the stream.

The story of the feast is related to the general theme of the book, for during its progress the king ordered the captured sacred vessels from Jerusalem’s Temple to be brought out. These vessels had been brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar after his conquest of Judah. Since they were vessels for God, they were kept in the temple of Marduk at Babylon. It was from these sacred vessels that the guests at the banquet drank wine while praising idols of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. Thus Belshazzar committed the ultimate blasphemy, as did Antiochus Epiphanes in the days of the author.

During this sacrilege the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote, as the terrified king and his guests watched. In verse 6 there is a vivid description of the terror and fear which possessed the king, causing his face to blanch, his arms to grow weak, and his knees to knock together. Once more word went out to the Chaldeans, enchanters, and astrologers to interpret the strange event, even as Nebuchadnezzar had twice sought an interpreter for his dream (chs. 2 and 4). This time no threat was made, but a reward was promised to any who could successfully interpret the writing (5:7).

According to the pattern of previous experience and the story form utilized by the author, nobody capable of interpreting the writing could be found and the king was greatly distressed. It should be noted that the same story-form and plot are used in chapters 2 and 4.

Verses 10-28

Daniel Interprets the Writing (5:10-28)

There is a mild satirical note running throughout these stories. A Jew living in the land famous for its wise men was the only truly wise man, for his wisdom came from the Source of all learning — God himself.

The queen, hearing of her husband’s discomfiture and distressed for him, remembered that Daniel, in whom "the spirit of the holy gods" dwelt, had been appointed chief of the Chaldeans by Nebuchadnezzar. She was convinced that this expert from among the Jews could unravel the meaning of the handwriting on the wall. So Daniel, the wisest of the wise, was summoned to appear before the king. The queen referred to Daniel by name and also remembered the name "Belteshazzar" given to this exiled Jew by Nebuchadnezzar himself.

In verses 13-16 there is a single statement made by the king to Daniel, wherein Belshazzar identifies Daniel with earlier days, explains what had happened and how the enchanters and Chaldeans had been unable to unravel the wonder of the handwriting, and finally promises that whoever succeeds in clearing up the mystery will be rewarded with high position in the kingdom. From a dramatic standpoint this repetition in direct discourse of material contained in the earlier sections is designed to set the stage for the next phase of the drama.

Daniel was not interested in the reward, and he made this fact clear to the king before proceeding to preach the king a sermon on the lesson of history. The fact that the Most High had given the kingdom into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar is repeated. In fact, the greatness of the Chaldean Empire and its authority over many peoples was, according to Daniel, explained only by the blessing of the Almighty, who is the author of all rule and authority.

The story of the pride which had brought temporary eclipse to the great king’s power is retold as warning. It had been a lesson hard for Nebuchadnezzar to learn. Only after his mind was made like that of a beast and only after living like an animal of the field did he learn the central lesson of life and history that "the Most High God rules the kingdom of men, and sets over it whom he will" (vs. 21).

Turning from his reference to Nebuchadnezzar, the wise man from Israel warned Belshazzar. The experience of his grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar (see Introduction), had not taught Belshazzar the lesson of humility so necessary for God’s continued favor (vss. 22-23).

The interpretation of the writing in verses 24-28 is a continuation of Daniel’s speech which reviewed Nebuchadnezzar’s experience and Belshazzar’s unwillingness to learn the lesson of humility. It was on account of this unhappy case history that the hand had mysteriously written on the wall words difficult to interpret The writing was "Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin." It has been suggested that these words were originally Babylonian weights — mina, shekel, and pares (a half-mina) . It is also possible that these three words together were a familiar expression at that time. However, even if the words were numbers, the meaning went far beyond. The popular saying was used to carry a greater lesson.

"Mene" is interpreted to mean: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end." The number of days had run out for Belshazzar and his end was at hand. Similarly, TEKEL means: "You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting." Having been weighed in the balances of God’s judgment, Belshazzar stood under judgment and was already condemned. Finally, peres is understood to mean: "Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians." A play on words was a familiar pattern among the Hebrews; hence, it is not surprising to see PERES meaning "to divide" and at the same time calling attention to Paras or Persia. Belshazzar’s city and kingdom did fall into the hands of Cyrus the Great, who was the inheritor of Persian and Median power. As an independent entity, however, the Medes who had aided in the destruction of Assyria in the late seventh century no longer existed.

Thus the writer drives home the predominant, recurrent theme of the book, that the dominions of men are always under the judgment of God, who alone gives or takes away all rule and authority. For Nebuchadnezzar madness was the way to true sanity, but Belshazzar was not so fortunate. His pride was the ultimate effrontery to God. To those suffering under the mad egotism of Antiochus IV this story pointed to the true ground for hope.

Verses 29-31

Reward and Punishment (5:29-31)

Belshazzar, true to his word, made Daniel the third ruler of the land with all honors appertaining thereto. Ahead of Daniel stood only Nabonidus and his regent son Belshazzar. Thus one loyal Hebrew, an example for all Israel, had not only come to be the wisest of the wise but also had been given a place of rule in a heathen land. The similarity to the Joseph stories is striking, even at the most cursory reading, yet there was probably little if any direct borrowing.

The next two verses have been a bone of contention among interpreters for years past. Who is Darius the Mede who took over Belshazzar’s kingdom at the age of 62 years? Identification of Darius with various historical characters has been attempted but with little success. In fact, even if an identification could be solidly made, the implication that there was a Median dynasty between the Chaldean and the Persian empires would still remain a problem. There is, as we have already noted, no place in time for such a dynasty. Cyrus the Great, a Persian, conquered Babylon and became its king in 539 B.C.; this is a matter of well-authenticated history. "Darius the Mede" is doubtless a later remembrance of Darius the Great who ruled from 522 to 486 B.C. The major lesson of the chapter stands, however, irrespective of exactitude in historical framework. In point of fact the Chaldean Empire did disintegrate, and Daniel was proclaiming that any empire or quasi-empire built on the same false assumptions faced inevitable disintegration.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Daniel 5". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/daniel-5.html.