King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. Daniel 5:1-2
Daniel 5 begins with this statement: “King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles….” This banquet turned out to be perhaps the most famous party in all of history, but not for the reasons that King Belshazzar was hoping. The story that has become known as “Belshazzar’s Feast” has been set to classical music, referred to in great works of literature, and depicted in one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings. This account is memorable, powerful, and a reminder to those who would presumptuously sin in defiance of the God of Israel.
Belshazzar and his officials assumed that the city of Babylon could never be taken. It had been built as an impregnable fortress with massive walls, and with vast stores of food, water, and other supplies to withstand a siege. Though the Babylonians were in a weakened state militarily and the Persian army was advancing, they assumed that their fortress would protect them.
Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine.
Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly.
In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast.“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.” Proverbs 23:29–35
In the first two verses of Daniel chapter 5 there are three references to drinking. Since it was a great banquet we can already safely assume they would be drinking wine. The repeated references to drinking therefore tell us something about this man and his nobles.
So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone. Daniel 5:3-4
Belshazzar was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. Sadly, he didn’t choose to follow the God of Israel even despite all that his grandfather had gone through. Rather, he indulged in pagan practices and gave honor to the deities of Babylon. He held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles. He ordered that the vessels of silver and gold that Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from Jerusalem be used to drink wine at his feast with his many wives and concubines. As they drank from the vessels from the temple of Yehovah, they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. They did not praise the Creator of heaven and earth, but they profaned the holy vessels of the temple and blasphemed the Holy One of Israel.
Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking. Daniel 5:5-6
What was usually written in cuneiform letters on slabs on the walls and on the very bricks of buildings in the royal cities of ancient empires, were the records of the titles, victories, and exploits of the monarchs of the kingdom. They were to remind the king’s subjects as well as his defeated enemies of the royal greatness and power. It is significant, that on the same wall on which the king was accustomed to read the flattering legends of his own magnificence, he beholds the mysterious inscription which foretells his impending fall.
God admonishes Belshazzar, not by a dream (as Nebuchadnezzar had been warned), or by a voice, but by the fingers of a human hand appearing and writing on the plaster of the wall which was illuminated by the nearby lampstand. The invisibility of Him who moved the fingers of the hand heightened the dreadful impressiveness of the scene. The hand of the Unseen One attested to the king’s doom before the eyes of himself and his guilty fellow revelers.
The spectacle achieved its intended purpose. Belshazzar’s face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.
The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”
Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled. Daniel 5:7-9
When the wise men of Babylon were unable to interpret the handwriting on the wall, King Belshazzar was even more horrified. But this occasion was not the first time that the wise men of Babylon fell short.
In the days of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed and they were unable to do so. This had made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon.
The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Daniel 5:10-11
Nabonidus probably married Nitocris, a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, reigning from 556–539 B.C. When the Scripture refers to King Nebuchadnezzar as King Belshazzar’s father, it means in his lineage. Nebuchadnezzar was actually Belshazzar’s grandfather, while Nabonidus was Belshazzar’s father. The queen most likely was to have been the wife of Nabonidus and mother of Belshazzar.
He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” Daniel 5:12
Daniel was used by God to reveal and interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.
Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Daniel 2:26-28a
Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter, Queen Nitocris knew first hand of Daniel’s abilities and integrity.
So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Daniel 5:13-16
According to a well-known and longstanding practice, in legal deeds from the sixth century B.C. the parties swear oaths by the gods and the king. In some of these deeds from the reign of Nabonidus, we find that the parties swear by Nabonidus and by Belshazzar, the king’s son. This formula, swearing by the king and his son, is unattested in any other reign in any documents yet uncovered. This suggests that Belshazzar may have had a special status. We know that during part of his father’s reign, Belshazzar was the effective authority in Babylon. The Babylonian texts reveal that Nabonidus was an eccentric ruler. While he did not ignore the gods of Babylon, he did not treat them in the approved way, and gave very considerable attention to the moon god at two other cities, Ur and Harran. For several years of his reign, Nabonidus did not even live in Babylon; instead he stayed at the distant oasis of Teima in northern Arabia. During that time, Belshazzar ruled in Babylon. According to one account, Nabonidus “entrusted the kingship” to Belshazzar.
Belshazzar was already second in the kingdom, serving as a co-regent with his absent father. He could offer Daniel nothing greater than “third ruler in the kingdom.”
Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means. Daniel 5:17
When Daniel was much younger and knew that he and his companions were destined to spend and extended time in captivity, Daniel accepted the gifts and high position afforded to him by King Nebuchadnezzar for interpreting his dream. But now, knowing both that the time of the Babylonian Empire was coming to an end and out of disdain for wretched Belshazzar, Daniel refused the rewards he offered.
“Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. Daniel 5:18-19
Before Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall, he reminds Belshazzar that it was the God of Daniel who, according to His divine dominion and purpose, gave King Nebuchadnezzar his authority, power, and high position.
But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. Daniel 5:20-12
Daniel also reminds Belshazzar of the severe consequences that Nebuchadnezzar endured for his pride and arrogance until his grandfather humbled himself and acknowledged the sovereignty of the Most High God.
“But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription. Daniel 5:22-24
First Daniel delineates the charges against Belshazzar before he pronounces the judgment against him for his presumptuous sin against the Lord of heaven.
“This is the inscription that was written: mene, mene, tekel, parsin Daniel 5:25
Mene is taken from the verb menah (Hebrew manah; Babylonian manu) indicated that God had numbered (the days of) Belshazzar’s kingdom and finished it (or delivered it up)
Tekel is interpreted as coming from two roots: the first, teqal, “to weigh,” and the second, qal, “to be light or wanting” (Hebrew qalal; Babylonian qalalu).
Parsin also is interpreted as coming from two roots: first, perac, “to divide” (Hebrew paras or parash; Babylonian parasu), and the second as denoting the proper name Parac, “Persia.”
“Here is what these words mean:
Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” Daniel 5:26-28
Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom. Daniel 5:29
The king, having promised to reward Daniel, was ashamed before his courtiers to break his word and commanded that Daniel be robed as royalty. Perhaps he also hoped that Daniel would be able to appeal to his God to alter this prophecy of his doom.
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two. Daniel 5:30-31
According to historical records a man named Gubaru, a Mede, was appointed by King Cyrus to be ruler in Babylon at this time. Gubaru (Darius the Mede) was born in 601 B.C. which would make him 62 years old when he invaded Babylon. Exactly the age found Daniel 5:31.
King Belshazzar and his officials believed that Babylon with its enormous walls was impregnable. But the historians Herodotus and Xenophon confirm Daniel’s account as to the suddenness of the event and how the Babylonians successfully invaded the city without much opposition. Cyrus diverted the Euphrates river which through the middle of the city, into a new channel. Cyrus and his troops guided by two deserters, marched along the river bed into the city, while the Babylonians were carousing at an annual feast to the gods. There was no large-scale attack upon the city. In fact, many within the city were not even aware for quite some time afterwards that the city had been taken. Because the city was taken by diverting the waters of the Euphrates, the invading armed forces were able to wade under her defenses without much of a fight.