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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Daniel 5

 

 

Verse 1

BELSHAZZAR’S VIEW OF THE DOOM WRITTEN BY JEHOVAH AGAINST HIS KINGDOM, AND ITS FULFILLMENT.

1. On Belshazzar see Introduction, III, 3, (4). It is not distinctly stated that this famous feast occurred in Babylon, though the cuneiform texts agree very well with the usual supposition. We are to think of this banquet — if it indeed represents, as it may, an historic incident — as occurring at a time when the army of Cyrus had already captured the entire city with the exception of the royal palace and temple citadel. [See Introduction, III, 3, (4), (5); 4.] These “thousand lords” — which, of course, is but a round number, though Alexander is said to have had ten thousand nobles at his marriage feast (Curtius) — were surrounded and entrapped, yet, as can be paralleled in many a history, their very danger seems to have made them more full of braggadocio. It may have been a desire to encourage certain fainting hearts, or to restrain a possible latent wish to surrender or betray this little patriotic remnant of Belshazzar’s formerly vast army, which led him to be excessively boastful, while the insult to the sacred vessels of Jehovah may have been provoked by the fact — as is seen from many prophecies, for example, Isaiah 13; Isaiah 14; Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45; Jeremiah 50; Jeremiah 51 — that the large Jewish population in Babylonia hailed the victories of Cyrus with unconcealed delight. Indeed it has been suspected by some scholars that the immediate edict by Cyrus for the Jews’ “return” may have been in payment for some important help rendered by them in the capture of Babylon. This hypothesis would have more weight, however, if the Jews had been the only people sent back to their own land, which was not the case. (See Introduction to Ezekiel, VII.) The Babylonians were celebrated for their feasts and drunkenness. Modern excavations have given us many details connected with these banquets. The walls of these banqueting halls were made of brick, but were covered from the floor to a considerable height with slabs of alabaster, while above these the walls were decorated with paintings on the stucco representing hunting and mythological scenes. The guests, as may be seen from the pictures, were commonly divided into groups of four who sat on raised seats facing each other, each group having a special table richly ornamented and covered with a fancy cloth. They were clothed in long robes which descended to their feet, and shod with sandals, their arms being bare and adorned with armlets and bracelets, while in the hand of each, a cup of elegant shape, the bottom often being in the form of a lion’s head, is held aloft preparatory to pledging the health of a friend or the king. These cups when emptied were refilled from a large jar standing on the floor. The wine drinking was the important part of these “feasts.” The guests are always seen in the sculptures not eating but drinking. It was a peculiarity of the Babylonians, distinguishing them from other orientals, that women were allowed at these feasts. In the British Museum may still be seen a representation of a little garden party where the Babylonian king and queen are drinking together, while above them the ghastly head of one of the king’s enemies hangs from a limb of one of the trees.


Verse 2

2. While he tasted the wine — Prince renders being under the influence of the wine. The earliest version of the LXX., probably through prejudice (see note Daniel 5:1), omits all reference to the presence of women.


Verse 3-4

3, 4. The favorite temple of the king adjoined the palace, so that these vessels could be obtained quickly and easily. A reason for this insult to Jehovah has already been suggested. (See note Daniel 5:1-4; see also Introduction, III, 4, “Babylon and its Fall.”)


Verse 5

5. Poetry and story have done their best to make vivid this climax of the feast, when Belshazzar, having publicly scorned Jehovah, drinking from his holy cup amid the laughter of his lords, suddenly felt the boisterous company grow deathly silent, and looking up saw on the plaster (literally, stucco) of the wall, under the full light of the golden chandelier, a ghostly hand appear, and saw the “palm” of that supernatural hand as it wrote strange words before his eyes, —

And wrote, and wrote, on the white wall Letters of fire wrote and disappeared! Heine.

The fact that the king saw the “hollow” of the hand would suggest that no pen seemed to be used, but the writing was accomplished by the stroke of the “fingers.” The “hand” was the organ of divine power (compare Ezekiel 8:3). In a famous Egyptian papyrus the hand, with its fingers as digits, represents certain mystic numbers and stands, in different positions, for certain well-known deities. The symbol of the “hand of might” has always been common in the Orient and may he seen in Jerusalem to this day sculptured, or colored with vermilion, on the lintel or above the arch of the door. While this symbol might, among the Jews, have been connected with the tradition of the deliverance of Israel from the last Egyptian plague, yet the uplifted open hand was prominent above the doors in ancient Carthage, and remains as an emblem of power in modern Turkey and Persia. So Siva, the Destroyer, in the Hindu triad, had as his symbol a hand — “token of might and life.” The king of Babylon could not be recognized as a legitimate ruler until he had lifted up his hand and clasped the hand of the image of Bel, his “father.” This mysterious hand, which the Assyrians as well as the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and other ancient nations regarded as a divine symbol of power, and which often, if not always, includes the thought of covenant relations between God and man (Trumbull, Threshold Covenant, 1896), here appears to write the doom of the king and dissolve his covenant with life.


Verse 6

6. The ruddy “brightness” (Aramaic) of the king’s face, flushed with wine, turns white, like the plaster on which his doom is being written; his loins grow weak and his knees smite together with fear. The strength of man was in the loins (Job 40:16; Ezekiel 21:6), and when he gave way here he suffered total collapse. The unmeaning “spectral letters” quite unmanned the king. The bravest soldiers of antiquity grew weak as babes when put face to face with what they thought to be the supernatural.

The hand is gone, the record tarries yet.

As one who waits the warrant of his death

With pale lips parted and with bridled breath,

They watched the sign and dared not turn to seek

Their fear reflected in their fellow’s cheek.


Verses 7-9

7-9. This Babylonian king, like his “father,” forgetting Daniel, calls for help from the same worthless crowd of “witches” (Wyclif) and Chaldeans (see note Daniel 2:2; some ancient texts omit “Chaldeans” here) and offers, as Nebuchadnezzar had done, great rewards to the man who can explain the vision (see Genesis 41:42; Esther 8:15; Ezekiel 27:7), who also shall be the third ruler in the kingdom. That is, according to its natural meaning, “third in rank” (Kautzsch); meaning, probably, chief ruler after Nabonidus and Belshazzar. [See Introduction, III, 3, (4); 4.] The rendering “one of the board of three” is not a fit here, while Bevan’s twist, changing the word so as to make it mean that the successful interpreter should reign over the kingdom on alternate days with the king himself, is more ingenious than convincing.


Verse 10

10. The queen mentioned here — who according to the context comes to the hall because of the babel of voices which arose after the first shock had passed — was not, as formerly conjectured, mother of Nabonidus, for a cuneiform text mentions her death, and the universal lamentation it caused, some years previous to this. The narrative becomes harmonious, however, by assuming that this was the wife of Nabonidus, and quite probably a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, and therefore the mother of Belshazzar. It was the ordinary expedient for a usurper like Nabonidus to strengthen himself on the throne by allying himself in marriage with the family of the previous king. The authority of her utterances and her superior knowledge concerning past events would identify her as the mother of the king, even if it had not been stated previously that the king’s wives were already in the banquet chamber (Daniel 5:2). Even an ordinary “mother” had great honor in ancient Babylon, being commonly represented by a sign which means “the goddess of the house,” and any disrespect to her was punished with severest penalties; but both in ancient Babylon and in Egypt, as in modern China, the queen mother had peculiar honor; being one of the most influential members of the court, whose judgment even the reigning king felt bound to respect (1 Kings 15:13; 2 Chronicles 15:16; Jeremiah 13:18; Jeremiah 29:2).


Verse 11

11. Compare Daniel 2:2; Daniel 2:47; Daniel 4:7-8. It is now known that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus and that Nabonidus was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar. Nevertheless the queen mother might have used these very words; for “son,” as all Assyriologists know, is very often used in the sense of “descendant” or even “successor” in the royal letters. It is not at all impossible Nabonidus may have claimed to be a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar. If so, it would have been death for anyone at the court to deny this, and to appeal to his descent from this greatest king would have been to make the strongest possible appeal to his pride and (especially when coming from the queen mother, see note Daniel 5:10) would have offered also the strongest possible pledge of allegiance. It meant a good deal, at a time when everyone was suspected of being a traitor (see note Daniel 5:1-4), to have this highest representative of the old dynasty acknowledge Belshazzar as the legitimate successor of Nebuchadnezzar. This accounts perfectly for the unusual emphasis given by the queen to the relationship of Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar. The criticisms of Meinhold and others, who have seen in these words another colossal “blunder” by the writer of this book, are thus disposed of. [See also Introduction, III, 3, (3), (4), (5); 4.] 12. Dissolving of doubts — Literally, loosing of knots. This probably refers to his skill in unraveling difficulties; although the figure used is drawn from Babylonian magic, where we now know “knots” (which could only be untied, according to the common notion, by the exercise of greatest care and skill) were commonly used to entangle and bewitch one’s enemies. The version which seems to represent the original LXX. is much briefer and more reserved than our Aramaic text.


Verses 13-16

13-16. Art thou that Daniel — Or, with Prince, So thou art Daniel. (Compare Daniel 8:27, and note on Daniel 5:12.) The oldest LXX. follows a shorter text: “Then Daniel was brought to the king, and the king answered and said, O Daniel, art thou able to show me the interpretation of the writing? And I will clothe thee with purple and put a gold chain about thy neck, and thou shalt have authority over a third part of my kingdom.” This is more reasonable than the elaborate speech of the A.V., which he would hardly have made while trembling in the presence of the mysterious writing (Daniel 5:6, and see remarks of Thomson in loco). Wyclif speaks of the decoration given to Daniel as “a golden bee in the neck.”


Verses 17-23

17-23. According to our text (the Greek is shorter) Daniel refuses to recognize his equality with the Babylonian Magi by accepting the presents which had previously been promised to them (Daniel 5:7), though afterward he accepts them (Daniel 5:29). His speech is abrupt (as Daniel 3:16) and sharp, with an intimation that Belshazzar himself needs gifts rather than he, and there may be a touch of irony in the opening words which offer to Belshazzar his coveted position as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, followed by a strong emphasis upon the fact that if that great king of the world, who had all power over all nations, was humbled by Jehovah, his little “son,” who reigned only over one palace, which was even now surrounded by a conquering army (see note Daniel 5:1-4 and Introduction, III, 4), need not expect a less punishment when he sacrilegiously lifts himself up against the Lord of heaven.

With the wild asses — This expression is not found in Daniel 4:32-33, but by a slight change the text may read “with the herds.” (Compare Daniel 5:3-4; Psalms 119; Psalms 116; Psalms 117; Jeremiah 10:23.)


Verse 24

24. For the hand see note Daniel 5:5.

Writing — Rather, engraving. The Babylonians were a scribbling people, and wrote or carved their inscriptions everywhere. (See Introduction, III, 2.)


Verse 25

25. This was intended to be a puzzle, and it has thoroughly served its purpose. Formerly there were great discussions among exegetes as to whether the grammatical forms used (for example, Peres for Persians) could be defended; but since it has been seen that this was a Babylonian pun or play on words this criticism has been abandoned. It was supposed by the rabbis that these words must have been written in a strange language which the magicians did not understand, or in the form of an acrostic or anagram; but although the incantations and magic charms of ancient Babylon were written generally in a dead language, which needed translation even for the priests, and although the double system of Babylonian writing (phonetic and ideographic) favored philological riddles, and although there is at least one example of a Babylonian acrostic in the British Museum, yet it is now seen that the “puzzle” was not chiefly in the deciphering of the words (though this was a part of it, see Daniel 5:8), but in their explanation. The first clue to this Babylonian riddle was found by Clermont Ganneau, who published in 1886 his discovery that these words — Mene, Tekel, Peres — were simply names of Babylonian weights (Journal Asiatique; Hebraica, iii). This article was quickly followed by a careful philological discussion of the whole question by Noldeke (Zeits. fur Assy., 1886), and the general conclusions of these scholars have been accepted by Sayce, Hommel, Haupt, Prince, and other Assyriologists. The puzzle, therefore, written upon the wall was this: A mina, a mina, a shekel, and half-minas. A mina was a well-known Assyrian weight consisting of sixty shekels, or five hundred and thirteen grains (Hilprecht). The parsu, or barsu, although inadvertently stated by Sayce to have been “part of a shekel,” was really equal to the half of a mina. Numbers had a mystic significance among the Babylonians (see Introduction to Ezekiel, VIII), and it is not impossible that the double mina (1+1) may represent Nebuchadnezzar, the shekel (1) Nabonidus, and the divided mina (½) Belshazzar; although Paul Haupt has recently suggested that the mina, which is the largest Babylonian weight, was a cryptic representation of Nebuchadnezzar, the shekel of his little “son,” Belshazzar, while the broken minas referred to the division of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire between the Medes and Persians. (Compare Daniel 2:39; Daniel 8:5.) All the gods had their “numbers” in ancient Babylon, and it is not at all improbable that an unworthy son could then, as in later Talmudic times, be described as a “peras [half-mina], the son of a mina.” The doubling of the mina may be for the reason suggested above, or merely for emphasis, or, as Meinhold thinks, because a double meaning is hidden in the cryptogram; or, as Haupt has conjectured, the first “mina” may be an introductory verb meaning “reckon” or “there have been counted.” The latter supposition, however, does not approve itself to the writer. In the cuneiform inscription, therefore, the puzzle stood, mana, mana, sitkla, (u) parsn; that is, “A mina, a mina, a shekel (and) halves,” or, transliterated into the sacred Semitic tongue — often used in the incantations and other religious texts — “Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided;” while by another slight change of vowels the word which had already meant “half-minas” and “divided” was seen to be the very name of the conquerors of Babylon, Paras, “the Persians!” This, then, was a typical Babylonian puzzle, so archaic in its construction that no ancient version or commentary was able to catch its root meaning. Itis an interesting fact in connection with the above that Nebuchadnezzar boasts in one inscription that he had fixed the weight of the mina in his day to conform with the heavier standard established by king Dungi about 3000 B.C. It may also seem suggestive that at the beginning of many Babylonian incantations stands this mystic word Sitkalu, sitkalu, “Shekeled, shekeled,” or “Weighed, weighed.”


Verse 29

29. And they clothed — Or, commanded to clothe. (Compare Daniel 5:17). Professor Kautzsch reads the famous phrase, third ruler in the kingdom, exactly as the A.V. and adds the explanation, “Either as one of three over the whole kingdom or as third by the side of the king and the king’s mother.” (See note Daniel 5:7-9.)


Verse 30-31

30, 31. For the facts connected with the capture of Babylon see Introduction, III, 4.

Took — Rather, “received” (R.V.). For conjectures concerning Darius the Mede see Introduction, III, 3, (5), and for “Medes and Persians” notes Daniel 2:39-42, and Daniel 7:5.

This account has powerfully influenced both art and literature. While the weighing of the heart of the dead forms one of the most beautiful chapters in the Book of the Dead, and while Homer, and Vergil, and AEschylus elaborate this thought, there need be no doubt that it was from Belshazzar’s feast and not from Egypt or Greece that the Hebrew hymn came which is even yet sung on the Day of Atonement in the Jewish synagogue: —

O be Thy mercy in the balance laid,

To hold thy servant’s sins more lightly weighed,

When, his confession penitently made,

He answers for his guilt before the king.

In mediaeval Christian architecture Michael is represented bearing a pair of scales in one hand and a sword in the other.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Daniel 5:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/daniel-5.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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