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Bible Commentaries
Daniel 5

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



Belshazzar's impious feast. A hand-writing, unknown to the magicians, troubleth the king. At the recommendation of the queen, Daniel is brought: he reproveth the king of pride and idolatry, readeth and interpreteth the writing. The monarchy is translated to the Medes.

Before Christ 539.

THIS chapter contains the history of Belshazzar's polluting the sacred vessels taken from the temple of God, of the hand-writing against the wall denouncing his consequent punishment, of the interpretation of that hand-writing by Daniel, of the death of the king, and the kingdom's being transferred to another people.

Verse 1

Daniel 5:1. Belshazzar the king The grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, the Labynetus of Herodotus, and the last monarch of the Babylonian kingdom. This last king is said by Ptolemy to have reigned 17 years, and we read of the third year of Belshazzar, Dan 8:1 but Laborosoarchod reigned only nine months. Certain it is from Jer 27:6-7 that the kingdom would be continued to the son's son of Nebuchadnezzar, and from 2Ch 36:20 that to him and his sons the sovereignty would be continued until the kingdom of Persia; and therefore one at least of his grandsons must have reigned in Babylon after Evil-merodach, who could not be the last king, or Belshazzar. And there is very little reason to doubt, from a review of the circumstances recorded in Scripture and by the profane historians, that the Belshazzar here meant was not the short-lived tyrant above mentioned, whose cruelties are recounted by Xenophon, and who was the daughter's son; but rather the son's son of Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabonadius the son of Evil-merodach. And this is the opinion of Jerom from Berosus in Josephus, cont. Revelation 1:20. The arguments usually adduced to settle this difficulty may be seen at large in the Univ. Hist. vol. 4: Note. p. 422, &c. as also in Dr. Prideaux, Conn. p. 1: b. 2.

Made a great feast For the principal officers of his court. This feast was made at a time of public rejoicing; being an annual festivity, when the whole night was spent in revelling. Cyrus took this advantage to make himself master of the city, as Herodotus and Xenophon relate, and Jeremiah foretold. See Jeremiah 50:24; Jeremiah 51:29; Jeremiah 51:64. This chapter, according to the order of time, might be placed after the 7th and 8th. In the style of the Hebrews, the grandfather is frequently called father. See Daniel 5:2; Daniel 5:11; Daniel 5:13.

Verse 2

Daniel 5:2. Whiles he tasted the wine When he grew warm with wine. Houbigant. The golden and silver vessels here spoken of, were those carried by Nebuchadnezzar from the temple of Jerusalem to the treasure-house of his god, (see chap. Daniel 1:2.) and which were there set apart for religious uses. So that this farther profanation of them, as Dr. Prideaux observes, was contrary to the rules of their own religion, and may be supposed to have been committed by Belshazzar in an excessive riot of drinking, as the text, according to Houbigant's translation, implies.

Verse 4

Daniel 5:4. And praised the gods of gold Here is a kind of competition, or the appearance of a triumph of the false gods over the true one, whom still Nebuchadnezzar had honoured and acknowledged, and prohibited by a solemn decree that any one should speak lightly of him. The competition appears much stronger in the Alexandrine and Coptic versions, which add, "But the everlasting God they praised not." Such a wanton and sacrilegious insult deserved and called for exemplary punishment.

Verse 6

Daniel 5:6. Then the king's countenance, &c.— The expressions in this verse, in a collected view, contain such a description of terror as is rarely to be met with, the dead change of the countenance, the perturbation of the thoughts, the joints of the loins become relaxed, and the knees smiting hither and thither or against each other, are very strong indications of horror.

Verse 8

Daniel 5:8. But they could not read the writing Because, says Houbigant, it was written in the ancient Samaritan characters, and such as were used upon their coins; which were very unlike the Chaldean letters: for these three compendiums of three sentences, Mene, Tekel, Peres, were such as were commonly found on their coins.

Verse 10

Daniel 5:10. Now the queen, &c.— Now the queen, on account of the affair which had happened to the king and his lords, came, &c. The word for countenance at the end of the verse signifies splendour, or the serenity of the face. The king's wives and concubines sat with him at the feast, Dan 5:2-3 so that the person here mentioned must have been the queen-mother, whom Herodotus calls Nitocris; a lady of eminent wisdom, who had the chief direction of public affairs. See Prideaux, and Herod. lib. i, and cap. 185.

Verse 11

Daniel 5:11. There is a man in thy kingdom, &c.— Belshazzar certainly could not have been well acquainted with Daniel, though Nebuchadnezzar had promoted him so considerably. This argues him to have been a weak and wicked prince, according to the character which the historians gave of him; leaving the care of public business to his mother.

Verse 13

Daniel 5:13. Which art Who is.

Verse 16

Daniel 5:16. That thou canst make interpretations That thou canst explain what is to be explained, or what stands in need of explanation. And dissolve doubts is literally to untie knots; a manner of speaking used to this day in the letters of the kings of Persia, to denote an expert judge, or an intelligent governor. See Chardin's Voyage to Persia, p. 228 and the note on Daniel 5:29.

Verse 17

Daniel 5:17. Let thy gifts be to thyself This is a compliment. He afterwards accepts what he here declines through civility. He means to say, that he was ready to do whatever the king commanded, without any respect to a recompense. See Calmet.

Verse 19

Daniel 5:19. Whom he would he slew We have here a strong picture of the absolute and independent power of these princes: they regarded their subjects only as their slaves. Xerxes, having assembled the great men of his kingdom, when he had determined to undertake the war against Greece, said to them, "I have assembled you, that I might not seem to act solely by my own counsel; but remember, that I expect obedience, not advice from you." See Calmet.

Verse 21

Daniel 5:21. The wild asses See the beautiful description of the wild ass, in Job, chap. Job 39:5, &c. Instead of ruled, in the latter part of this verse, we may read ruleth.

Verse 24

Daniel 5:24. Then was the part of the hand sent Therefore is the hand sent from him, the fingers whereof have formed this writing. Houbigant.

Verse 25

Daniel 5:25. MENE, &c.— These words are fully explained by Daniel in the following verses. The word Mene is doubled, to shew that the thing is certain and established by God; as Joseph told Pharaoh in a similar case.

Verse 28

Daniel 5:28. The Medes and Persians The kingdom of the Medes seems to have been but of short duration: it probably had its name of Media from מדי Madi, the third son of Japhet; but its first establishment into a kingdom is dated about 150 years before the reign of Cyrus. Sir Isaac Newton reckons up only five kings. Herodotus (lib. 1:) tells us, the first was Dejoces, a man of great prudence, and who reigned a long time. Phraortes his son succeeded him, whom Calmet judges to have been the Arphaxad of the book of Judith, but Prideaux is of a different opinion: see Conn. p. 1: b. 1. This monarch was followed by Cyaxares, a prince who widely extended the empire over Asia, and left it to his son Astyages, the father, according to Xenophon, of Cyaxares the second, or Darius Medus. Pliny, in his Nat. Hist. p. 100., settles the geography of Media in this manner: it had the Caspians and the Parthians on the east, the Lower Assyria, called Sitacene, Susiana, and Persis, on the south; on the west Adiabene or the middle parts of Assyria, that is to say, Diarbek; and Armenia on the north. Virgil, in his 2nd Georg. calls it "ditissima terra," a most fertile country, and celebrates it for the production of the Malum Medicum or the Citron. Polybius also, lib. 5:, takes notice of its great abundance in corn and cattle, and of a multitude of cities and towns in the plains amid the mountains which divide it from east to west. Its capital Ecbatane was a very spacious and opulent city, which the Persian kings used for a summer-residence; and is said to have been fifteen miles in circumference, to have had walls seventy cubits high, and fifty broad. Judith, chap. Daniel 1:2. This place is also much noticed in the book of Tobit, as where his son Tobias was married, to which he retired from Nineveh, and ended his days in it.

Persia, whose capital is Persepolis, situated on the south of Media, gives name to the gulph below, which receives the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. It consisted of three parts, Persis, Elymais, from whence the Elamites of Scripture, and Susiana, unless the latter should be considered as a distinct region, having had Susa for its capital. But Susiana was added to Persia by Cyaxares the first. This whole tract, together with Media and Assyria or Babylon, as also Lydia and other countries, were all united under Cyrus, who was the first monarch of this Persian empire, as Darius Codomannus was the fourteenth and last.

Verse 29

Daniel 5:29. They clothed Daniel The clothing of Daniel with scarlet was an honour of a different kind from that mentioned, chap. Daniel 2:46. We have no custom of this kind. Persons receive favours of various sorts from princes; but the coming out from their presence in a different dress, is not an honour in use among us, though it is still practised in the East. Some doubt, however, may be made concerning the precise intention of thus clothing him; whether it was the investing him with the dignity of the third ruler of the kingdom, by putting on him the dress belonging to that office; or whether it was a distinct honour; the modern customs of the East not determining this point, because caffetans, or robes, are at this day put on people with both views. Thus Norden, speaking of one of the Arab princes of Upper Egypt, says, that he had received at Girge the caffetan of the bey, which was the only mark of respect they paid there at that time to the Turkish government, force deciding between the competitors who should have the dignity, and he that was sent to Girge being absolutely to be vested with the caffetan by the bey. But then we find too, that these caffetans are given merely as an honour, and not as an ensign of office. La Roque tells us, that he himself received it at Sidon, and three other attendants on the French consul, along with the consul himself, who, upon a particular occasion, waited on Ishmael the basha of that place. Agreeable to which, Thevenot tells us, that he saw an ambassador from the Great Mogul come out from an audience that he had of the Grand Signior with a vest of cloth of gold upon his back, a caffetan of which sort of stuff thirty of his retinue also had: and elsewhere he observes, that he saw one hundred and eight of the retinue of an Egyptian bey thus honoured along with their master, by a bashaw of that country. But if it should be indeterminate whether this scarlet vestment was merely the dress belonging to the office with which Daniel was dignified, or a distinct honour, it is by no means uncertain whether it was put upon him or not, since these caffetans are always in readiness in the East, and are wont immediately to be put on: contrary to the sentiments of Lowth, who supposes in his commentary on the place, that though the king thought himself bound to perform the promise of the 16th verse, yet that it was likely it could not take effect at that unseasonable time of the night, and therefore that the words might have been better translated, "Then commanded Belshazzar, that they should clothe Daniel with scarlet." This is certainly an unnecessary refinement. See Observation, p. 278.

Verse 30

Daniel 5:30. In that night was Belshazzar—slain He and all his nobles were slain together, in the midst of their feasting and revels. Xenophon relates the history thus: Two deserters, Gadatas and Gobrias, having assisted some of the Persian army to kill the guards and seize upon the palace, entered the room where the king was, whom they found in a posture of defence; but they soon dispatched him and his attendants. See Xenoph. Cyropaed. lib. 7: and Bishop Chandler's Vindication, p. 17, 18 where the Bishop observes, that the ancient historians agree with Daniel as to the main of his history, and one or other of them confirm every part of it.

The punishment of Nebuchadnezzar, the death of Belshazzar, and the expiration of the kingdom, may serve to remind us of that fine passage of the wise son of Sirach, which I shall transcribe from the tenth chapter of the book of Ecclesiasticus. "The beginning of pride is, when one departeth from God, and his heart is turned away from his Maker. For pride is the beginning of sin, and he that hath it shall pour out abomination. The Lord hath cast down the thrones of proud princes, and set up the meek in their stead. The Lord hath plucked up the roots of the proud nations, and planted the lowly in their places. The Lord overthrew countries of the heathen, and hath made their memorial to cease from the earth. Pride was not made for men, nor furious anger for them that are born of a woman."

Verse 31

Daniel 5:31. And Darius the Median took the kingdom And Darius the Mede accepted the kingdom; so the Syriac and Arabic versions. This Darius, in the ninth chapter, is said to be of the seed of the Medes, and is supposed by the most judicious chronologers to have been the same with Cyaxares, the son of Astyages. Cyrus made him king of the Chaldeans, as being his uncle by the mother's side; and left him the palace of the king of Babylon, to live there whenever he pleased.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, Belshazzar, the subject of this chapter, was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar, Jer 27:7 whose monarchy, according to the term fixed in the prophetic word, was now hasting to ruin. We have here,

1. An account of his impiety and profaneness. Unaffected with the danger of his situation, though a victorious army was at the gates of Babylon; on some returning solemnity in honour of his gods, or to celebrate his birth-day, he invites all the great men of his court, and chief officers of his army, to partake of a grand entertainment that he had provided, and makes one himself at the festal board, and drank wine before them. In the midst of mirth and jollity, the sacred vessels of the temple occurred to him; and in a frolic, or to express his contempt of Israel's God, and to do honour to his own, he commands them to be brought, and all present drank out of them, and praised their idol gods, who had given them these spoils of their enemies: probably the report of the deliverance of Israel from Babylon might now be propagated, the seventy years being just at an end; some say that very night they expired; and this might be done in defiance of Israel's God, and in ridicule of the prophetic word. Note; (1.) Drunkenness is the door to every abomination. (2.) They are hastening apace to ruin, who can make a jest of things sacred. (3.) The joyous sinner in the midst of his carousals is a most pitiable object, dancing and singing on the brink of the gulph, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

2. A sudden event terribly interrupts their impious joys. In the midst of their carousals, a hand appears over against the candlestick, and writes upon the plaister of the wall. Struck with terror at the sight, Belshazzar's countenance changed; his pallid cheeks, his quivering lips, his trembling knees, his tottering frame, bespoke the horrors of his soul; and conscious guilt awakened dire forebodings of the dreadful doom hereby portended. In haste he calls aloud to bring the wisest of his Chaldean sages, and promises the highest rewards to the man who can read and interpret the writing, but in vain; for though the words were Chaldee, the manner or form of writing was such as entirely baffled their skill; or by a divine judgment, to make the skill of Daniel more illustrious, God confounded their understandings; and this increased the more the anxiety of the monarch, and filled his lords with consternation and astonishment. Note; (1.) God can reach the most daring sinners; one touch of his hand, yea, their own thoughts let loose upon them, are enough to make them a terror to themselves. (2.) Shall an unknown writing thus trouble the conscience of Belshazzar, and shall not all the curses so plainly written in the book of God affect the careless and impenitent?

2nd, In this state of dismay and confusion we have,
1. The advice of the queen; who had not been present at the feast; but, on hearing what had passed, had come to the banqueting house. She is supposed to be not the wife of Belshazzar, but of his father Evil-merodach, called by Herodotus Nitocris, and greatly famed for her prudence: though others think her to be Amytis, the grandmother of the king, and wife of Nebuchadnezzar. It appears that she was well acquainted with the transactions of former times, and knew the abilities of Daniel; and therefore is bold to say, though the wise men of Babylon were at a stand, that the king need not fear but an interpreter could be found. Probably Daniel's interest had long since declined at court: so likely often, in a new reign, are the best and most faithful of the ancient counsellors to be neglected. But the high character that the queen gives of this now forgotten sage could not but excite a desire to have him called. She speaks of him as something more than human, possessed of wisdom approaching omniscience, and penetration so deep, that no secrets or difficulties whatever puzzled him; and by experience the king Nebuchadnezzar had proved him to be possessed of a spirit far excelling all the magicians and astrologers of his kingdom. In consequence of which, he had advanced him to be master of all the sages, and named him Belteshazzar, in honour of his god. The queen desires, therefore, that he may be sent for, and doubts not but he will give the king full satisfaction.

2. Daniel is instantly summoned, and appears before the king, unknown to him by person, as appears by Belshazzar's question, Daniel 5:13. But having heard such high encomiums of his wisdom, he is desirous to try whether he can read and interpret the writing, of which the magicians confess their ignorance; and promises him the same rewards as he had offered to them, if he could clearly explain the matter: even that he should be arrayed in the richest robes of honour, and promoted to the third place for dignity in his kingdom.

3. Daniel undertakes to read and interpret the writing; but prefaces his discourse with some striking remarks and admonitions.
(1.) The proffered gifts he nobly disdains, as the reward of his interpretation; he neither wanted nor sought them. At his age, advancement would be but a burden; and when the whole government was so quickly to be overturned, such honours were not worth acceptance. Yet he will freely satisfy the king, if that can be called satisfaction, which, instead of relieving his fears, must increase his distress. Note; A sense of the near approaching end of all things should make us sit loose to the trifles of this changing and perishing world.

(2.) He recounts God's dispensations towards the king's father, or rather his grandfather, Nebuchadnezzar; it being not unusual in scripture to term a more remote ancestor father. By the providence and gift of the most high God, from whom all good things come, and to whose blessing all our prosperity ought ever to be ascribed, Nebuchadnezzar had acquired such dominion, honour, and authority, as perhaps no prince before had ever attained to; so irresistible his power, that none dared to contend with him; and, trembling at his feet, all nations bowed before him. His government despotic, his authority absolute; the liberty and property, the life or death of all his subjects hung on his breath; his will was law, his orders obeyed without remonstrance or hesitation: a dangerous power to be vested in the bosom of a fallen creature, a curse upon the land where such arbitrary monarchs rule. Abusing his authority, Nebuchadnezzar had acted with that tyranny and oppression which lawless power, directed by caprice, naturally produced; and, hardened in pride, he not only behaved unjustly to man, but insolently towards the most High, ascribing to his own prowess his successes, and affecting independence of every superior. For these things the God of heaven hurled him from his throne, and degraded him not merely to the lowest state of human meanness, but to a level with the brute creation, to be the companion of wild asses, justly depriving him of the reason that he had abused, and for his savageness and oppression sending him to dwell with the beasts that he chose to imitate; till, humbled in the dust, he was brought to acknowledge the government of the most High, and own himself the subject of his pleasure.

(3.) He arraigns Belshazzar for his crimes, aggravated by the neglect of all the warnings which God had given him in his father's case. He knew all that had passed, yet nevertheless,
[1.] He had not humbled his heart, but continued impenitent in the same pride and rebellion against God. Note; It is an aggravation of children's sins, if, instead of being admonished by their father's miseries, they persist to follow their destructive ways.

[2.] He had exceeded in impiety his ungodly fire. Thou hast lifted up thyself against, or above the Lord of heaven, with more daring blasphemy, defying his power and dishonouring his name, as if he was his superior; and shew-ing the contempt in which he held him, by his horrid profanation of the vessels of the temple, while he praised his idol gods, senseless as the vessels from which he poured out the libation to them.

[3.] The God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified; a charge, before which who need not tremble! Our breath is from him; it is momentarily preserved by him, our ways under his controul, every event at his disposal. To glorify him is the great end of our being, our duty, and should be our delight; but we have failed and gone astray every one in his own way, casting off his government, and negligent of his glory. The Lord humble us for this, that we may not meet Belshazzar's doom.

4. Having thus proved his crimes, Daniel pronounces his doom, according to the tenor of the writing on the wall, the explication of which he had demanded. Then when his iniquity was at the height, at this impious feast, came this hand from God, and wrote these words—MENE MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. The words are Chaldee, and signify, He hath numbered, he hath numbered, he hath weighed, and they divide; the several particulars of which he explains:

MENE, God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it; the term of the monarchy is expiring, its ruin is near, and the word is repeated to shew its certainty.

TEKEL, Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting; God, who weighs in the balances of exact justice the actions and characters of men, pronounces him worthless and reprobate.

PERES, the singular of Pharsin, (U being the copulative,) Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians; such is the irreversible decree of the Almighty; and Belshazzar, convinced in his conscience that Daniel had spoken the truth, though so fearful the sentence, immediately confers on him the promised reward. Withering honours! the pageantry of an hour! and all this world's honours, viewed in their true light, are no better.

The sinner and the hypocrites doom is like Belshazzar's. At death their days are numbered; in judgment they will be weighed in the balance of God's holy law, and found wanting; and then be given up to the devil and his angels, to be tormented to eternity.
3rdly, The writing is scarcely sooner interpreted than verified. That very night the city was taken, and Belshazzar slain: taking advantage of this debauch of the king, as history informs us, Cyrus entered the city by the bed of the river, the waters of which he had cut off; and the guards being fast asleep, and overcome with wine, made no resistance; so that all the gates being opened, Gadatas and Gobryas, two great men, who, being ill used by Belshazzar, had revolted to Cyrus, went directly to the palace, and slew the king with all his attendants. Thus ended the Babylonish empire; and Darius the Mede, called also Cyaxares, the uncle of Cyrus, ascended the throne; the first king of the second monarchy. He was sixty-two years old, and consequently was born in the year that Jeconiah was carried captive: God so ordering, that at the very time his people were sent into Babylon, their deliverer should be provided. Cyrus reigned in conjunction with his uncle; though, being the younger, he is not mentioned; and after two years succeeded him in the sole government of the empire, concerning whom so many prophesies had gone before, all which, we find, he most exactly fulfilled. Thus, though God visit his people and the nations for their sins, there is still hope for returning penitents even in the darkest day of affliction.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Daniel 5". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/daniel-5.html. 1801-1803.
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