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Bible Commentaries
Daniel 5

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-31


IN this chapter again we have another magnificent fresco-picture, intended, as was the last-but under circumstances of aggravated guilt and more terrible menace-to teach the lesson that "verily there is a God that judgeth the earth."

The truest way to enjoy the chapter, and to grasp the lessons which it is meant to inculcate in their proper force and vividness, is to consider it wholly apart from the difficulties as to its literal truth. To read it aright, and duly estimate its grandeur, we must relegate to the conclusion of the story all worrying questions, impossible of final solution, as to whom the writer intended by Belshazzar, or whom by Darius the Mede. All such discussions are extraneous to edification, and in no way affect either the consummate skill of the picture or the eternal truths of which it is the symbolic expression. To those who, with the present writer, are convinced, by evidence from every quarter-from philology, history, the testimony of the inscriptions, and the manifold results obtained by the Higher Criticism that the Book of Daniel is the work of some holy and highly gifted "Chasid" in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, it becomes clear that the story of Belshazzar, whatever dim fragments of Babylonian tradition it may enshrine, is really suggested by the profanity of Antiochus Epiphanes in carrying off, and doubtless subjecting to profane usage, many of the sacred vessels of the Temple of Jerusalem. The retribution which awaited the wayward Seleucid tyrant is prophetically intimated by the menace of doom which received such immediate fulfilment in the case of the Babylonian King. The humiliation of the guilty conqueror, "Nebuchadrezzar the Wicked," who founded the Empire of Babylon, is followed by the overthrow of his dynasty in the person of his "son," and the capture of his vast capital.

"It is natural," says Ewald, "that thus the picture drawn in this narrative should become, under the hands of our author, a true night-piece, with all the colours of the dissolute, extravagant riot, of luxurious passion and growing madness, of ruinous bewilderment, and of the mysterious horror and terror of such a night of revelry and death."

The description of the scene begins with one of those crashing overtures of which the writer duly estimated the effect upon the imagination.

"Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.": The banquet may have been intended as some propitiatory feast in honour of Bel-merodach.. It was celebrated in that palace which was a wonder of the world, with its winged statues and splendid spacious halls. The walls were rich with images of the Chaldeans, painted in vermilion and exceeding in dyed attire-those images of goodly youths riding on goodly horses, as in the Panathenaic procession on the frieze of the Acropolis-the frescoed pictures, on which, in the prophet’s vision, Aholah and Aholibah, gloated in the chambers of secret imagery. Belshazzar’s princes were there, and his wives, and his concubines, whose presence the Babylonian custom admitted, though the Persian regarded it as unseemly. The Babylonian banquets, like those of the Greeks, usually ended by a "Komos" or revelry, in which intoxication was regarded as no disgrace. Wine flowed freely. Doubtless, as in the grandiose picture of Martin, there were brasiers of precious metal, which breathed forth the fumes of incense; and doubtless, too, there were women and boys and girls with flutes and cymbals, to which the dancers danced in all the orgiastic abandonment of Eastern passion. All this was regarded as an element in the religious solemnity; and while the revellers drank their wine, hymns were being chanted, in which they praised "the gods of gold and silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone." That the king drank wine before the thousand is the more remarkable because usually the kings of the East banquet in solitary state in their own apartments.

Then the wild king, with just such a burst of folly and irreverence as characterised the banquets of Antiochus Epiphanes, bethought him of yet another element of splendour with which he might make his banquet memorable, and prove the superiority of his own victorious gods over those of other nations. The Temple of Jerusalem was famous over all the world, and there were few monarchs who had not heard of the marvels and the majesty of the God of Israel. Belshazzar, as the "son" of Nebuchadrezzar, must-if there was any historic reality in the events narrated in the previous chapter-have heard of the "signs and wonders" displayed by the King of heaven, whose unparalleled awfulness his father had publicly attested in edicts addressed to all the world. He must have known of the Rabmag Daniel, whose wisdom, even as a boy, had been found to be superior to that of all the "Chartummim" and "Ashshaphim"; and how his three companions had been elevated to supreme satrapies; and how they had been delivered unsinged from the seven-times-heated furnace, whose flames had frilled his father’s executioners. Under no conceivable circumstances could such marvels have been forgotten; under no circumstances could they have possibly failed to create an intense and profound impression. And Belshazzar could hardly fail to have heard of the dreams of the golden image and of the shattered cedar, and of Nebuchadrezzar’s unspeakably degrading lycanthropy. His "father" had publicly acknowledged-in a decree published "to all peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth"-that humiliation had come upon him as a punishment for his overweening pride. In that same decree the mighty Nebuchadrezzar-only a year or two before, if Belshazzar succeeded him-had proclaimed his allegiance to the King of heaven; and in all previous decrees he had threatened "all people, nations, and languages" that. if they spake anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, they should be cut in pieces, and their houses made a dunghill. {Daniel 3:29} Yet now Belshazzar, in the flush of pride and drunkenness, gives his order to insult this God with deadly impiety by publicly defiling the vessels of His awful Temple, {Daniel 1:2 Comp #/RAPC 1 Maccabees 1:21 ff.} at a feast in honour of his own idol deities!

Similarly Antiochus Epiphanes, if he had not been half mad, might have taken warning, before he insulted the Temple and the sacred vessels of Jerusalem, from the fact that his father, Antiochus the Great, had met his death in attempting to plunder the Temple at Elymais (B.C. 187). He might also have recalled the celebrated discomfiture-however caused-of Heliodorus in the Temple of Jerusalem. {#/RAPC 2 Maccabees 3:1-40}

Such insulting and reckless blasphemy could not go unpunished. It is fitting that the Divine retribution should overtake the king on the same night, and that the same lips which thus profaned with this wine the holiest things should sip the wine of the Divine poison-cup, whose fierce heat must in the same night prove fatal to himself. But even such sinners, drinking as it were over the pit of hell, "according to a metaphor used elsewhere. Psalms 55:15 must still at the last moment be warned by a suitable Divine sign, that it may be known whether they will honour the truth." Nebuchadrezzar had received his warning, and in the end it had not been wholly in vain. Even for Belshazzar it might perhaps not prove to be too late.

For at this very moment, {Comp. Daniel 3:7} when the revelry was at its zenith, when the whirl of excited self-exaltation was most intense, when Judah’s gold was "treading heavy on the lips"-the profane lips-of satraps and concubines, there appeared a portent, which seems at first to have been visible to the king alone.

Seated on his lofty and jewelled throne, which

"Outshone the wealth of Ormuz or of Ind, Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand Showers on its kings barbaric pearl and gold,"

his eye caught something visible on the white stucco of the wall above the line of frescoes. He saw it over the lights which crowned the huge golden "Nebrashta," or chandelier. The fingers of a man’s hand were writing letters on the wall, and the king saw the hollow of that gigantic supernatural palm.

The portent astounded and horrified him. The flush of youth and of wine faded from his cheek; -"his brightnesses were changed"; his thoughts troubled him; the bands of his loins were loosed, his knees smote one against another in his trembling attitude, as he stood arrested by the awful sight.

With a terrible cry he ordered that the whole familiar tribe of astrologers and soothsayers should be summoned. For though the hand had vanished, its trace was left on the wall of the banqueting-chamber in letters of fire. And the stricken king, anxious to know above all things the purport of that strange writing, proclaims that he who could interpret it should be clothed in scarlet, and have a chain of gold about his neck, and should be one of the triumvirs of the kingdom.

It was the usual resource; and it failed as it had done in every previous instance. The Babylonian magi in the Book of Daniel prove themselves to be more futile even than Pharaoh’s magicians with their enchantments.

The dream-interpreters in all their divisions entered the banquet-hall. The king was perturbed, the omen urgent, the reward magnificent. But it was all in vain. As usual they failed, as in very instance in which they are introduced in the Old Testament. And their failure added to the visible confusion of the king, whose livid countenance retained its pallor. The banquet, in all its royal magnificence, seemed likely to end in tumult and confusion; for the princes, and satraps, and wives, and concubines all shared in the agitation and bewilderment of their sovereign.

Meanwhile the tidings of the startling prodigy had reached the ears of the Gebirah-the queen-mother-who, as always in the East, held a higher rank than even the reigning sultana. She had not been present at-perhaps had not approved of-the luxurious revel, held when the Persians were at the very gates. But now in her young son’s extremity, she comes forward to help and advise him. Entering the hall with her attendant maidens, she bids the king to be no longer troubled, for there is a man of the highest rank-invariably, as would appear, overlooked and forgotten till the critical moment, in spite of his long series of triumphs and achievements-who was quite able to read the fearful augury, as he had often done before, when all others had been foiled by Him who "frustrateth the tokens of the liars and maketh diviners mad." {Isaiah 44:25} Strange that he should not have been thought of, though "the king thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made him master of the whole college of magis and astrologers. Let Belshazzar send for Belteshazzar, and he would untie the knot and read the awful enigma."

Then Daniel was summoned; and since the king "has heard of him, that the spirit of the gods is in him, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom is found in him," and that he is one who can interpret dreams, and unriddle hard sentences and untie knots, he shall have the scarlet robe, and the golden chain, and the seat among the triumvirs, if he will read and interpret the writing.

"Let thy gifts be thine, and thy rewards to another," {so Elisha, 2 Kings 5:16} answered the seer, with fearless forthrightness: "yet, O king, I will read and interpret the writing." Then, after reminding him of the consummate power and majesty of his father Nebuchadrezzar; and how his mind had become indurated with pride; and how he had been stricken with lycanthropy, "till he knew that the Most High God ruled in the kingdom of men"; and that, in spite of all this, he, Belshazzar, in his infatuation, had insulted the Most High God by profaning the holy vessels of His Temple in a licentious revelry in honour of idols of gold, silver, brass, iron, and stone, which neither see, nor know, nor heal-for this reason (said the seer) had the hollow hand been sent and the writing stamped upon the wall.

And now what was the writing? Daniel at the first glance had read that fiery quadrilateral of letters, looking like the twelve gems of the high priest’s ephod with the mystic light gleaming upon them.

M. N. A. M. N. A. T. O. L. P. R. S. Four names of weight.

A Mina. A Mina. A Shekel. A Half-mina.

What possible meaning could there be in that? Did it need an archangel’s colossal hand, flashing forth upon a palace-wall to write the menace of doom, to have inscribed no more than the names of four coins or weights? No wonder that the Chaldeans could not interpret such writing!

It may be asked why they could not even read it, since the words are evidently Aramaic, and Aramaic was the common language of trade. The Rabbis say that the words, instead of being written from right to left, "pillar-wise," as the Greeks called it, from above downwards: thus-

p t m m r q n n s l a a

Read from left to right, they would look like gibberish; read from above downwards, they became clear as far as the reading was concerned, though their interpretation might still be surpassingly enigmatic.

But words may stand for all sorts of mysterious meanings; and in the view of analogists-as those are called who not only believe in the mysterious force and fascination of words, but even in the physiological quality of sounds-they may hide awful indications under harmless vocables. Herein lay the secret.

A mina! a mina! Yes; but the names of the weights recall the word m’nah, "hath numbered": and "God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it."

A shekel! Yes; t’qilta: "Thou hast been weighed in a balance and found wanting."

Peres- a half-mina! Yes; but p’risath: "Thy kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians."

At this point the story is very swiftly brought to a conclusion, for its essence has been already given. Daniel is clothed in scarlet, and ornamented with the chain of gold, and proclaimed triumvir.

But the king’s doom is sealed! "That night was Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, slain." His name meant, "Bel preserve thou the king!" But Bel bowed down, and Nebo stooped, and gave no help to their votary.

"Evil things in robes of sorrow Assailed the monarch’s high estate; Ah, woe is me! for never morrow Shall dawn upon him desolate! And all about his throne the glory That blushed and bloomed Is but an ill-remembered story Of the old time entombed,"

"And Darius the Mede took the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old."

As there is no such person known as "Darius the Mede," the age assigned to him must be due either to some tradition about some other Darius, or to chronological calculations to which we no longer possess the key.

He is called the son of Achashverosh, Ahasuerus (Daniel 9:1), or Xerxes. The apologists have argued that-

1. Darius was Cyaxares II, father of Cyrus, on the authority of Xenaphon’s romance, and Josephus’s echo of it. But the "Cyropaedia" is no authority, being, as Cicero said, a non-historic fiction written to describe an ideal kingdom. History knows nothing of a Cyaxares II.

2. Darius was Astyages. Not to mention other impossibilities which attach to this view, Astyages would have been far older than sixty-two at the capture of Babylon by Cyrus. Cyrus had suppressed the Median dynasty altogether some years before he took Babylon.

3. Darius was the satrap Gobryas, who, so far as we know, only acted as governor for a few months. But he is represented on the contrary as an extremely absolute king, setting one hundred and twenty princes "over the whole kingdom," and issuing mandates to "all people, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth." Even if such an identification were admissible, it would not in the least save the historic accuracy of the writer. This "Darius the Mede" is ignored by history, and Cyrus is represented by the ancient records as having been the sole and undisputed king of Babylon from the time of his conquest. "Darius the Mede" probably owes his existence to a literal understanding of the prophecies of Isaiah {Isaiah 13:17} and Jeremiah. {Jeremiah 51:11; Jeremiah 51:28}

We can now proceed to the examination of the next chapter unimpeded by impossible and halfhearted hypotheses. We understand it, and it was meant to be understood, as a moral and spiritual parable, in which unverified historic names and traditions are utilised for the purpose of inculcating lessons of courage and faithfulness. The picture, however, falls far below those of the other chapters in power, finish, and even an approach to natural verisimiltude.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Daniel 5". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/daniel-5.html.
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