Daniel 5:1-31 – The Writing on the Wall
SummaryBelshazzar replaces Nebuchadnezzar in the storyline, but there is no improvement in leadership. Belshazzar's story repeats the self-satisfied pride of his predecessor and extends it to a blasphemous use of the temple vessels. Once again a disturbing vision-four letters on a wall-must be interpreted by Daniel. They signal the end of the Babylonian era and point to Belshazzar's death.
AnalysisDaniel 5 repeats and extends many of the themes of the prior chapters. Daniel 4, for example, explored the breaking of a prideful power that did not know its source. Daniel 5 addresses a pride that not only ignores the proper use of power, but also challenges its divine source. Belshazzar's party probably started simply as an occasion for him to be a "big shot"-both to show off and to consolidate support for himself by hosting his followers. Belshazzar's self-centered party soon grew blasphemous as the guests drank from vessels of the temple in Jerusalem and worshiped other gods (5:3-4). Such blasphemy indicates that the king had let the party go to his head.
This story is told from a Judean point of view. It doesn't tell us why vessels from the temple in Jerusalem were used and not the vessels from some other conquered temple. The writer is simply interested in exploring the rebellious challenge to the God of Israel. God had given Nebuchadnezzar the victory over Jerusalem (1:1-2) which had culminated in the plundering of the temple vessels. The victory itself belonged to God, but King Belshazzar saw it simply as another sign of Babylonian prestige. What Babylonians worshiped was merely gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone-objects of creation-but not the God of creation.
Belshazzar's vision shattered the power taken for granted in the Babylonian empire. The king remained pale (5:6, 9), because no one could interpret his dream. When his lords saw that their king was scared, they could only be scared as well (5:9). They were dependent on him. Their world had not been enlarged enough to include the Lord of heaven as a major factor.
Earlier, Nebuchadnezzar's stubborn pride led to a quarrel with his advisors, whom he finally threatened with death (2:2-11). Now, in Daniel 5, we meet a king who was too proud to have learned from his father. Admitting the need to learn anything is an admission that one is not self-sufficient; it is not surprising then that Belshazzar does not acknowledge God. The king is forced to accept advice from people not included in the party: first the queen (5:10) and then Daniel (5:12-13). When the king called for Daniel, it was clear that he knew his gods of gold, silver, and the like were of no use (5:13-17).
Daniel would not accept honorific rewards from the king for doing his duty (5:17). His way of life was the opposite of the principles on which the king had based his conduct. When at the end of the chapter the king commands the reception of his gifts, there is a quick reversal. Daniel, the servant, is honored, while the one who judged the world and his conduct on the basis of prestige is killed.
Because of his pride, Nebuchadnezzar was condemned to seven years of subhuman life (4:32). Belshazzar, in contrast, was killed (5:30). Belshazzar's pride had led to blasphemy, which was an act of defiance beyond that of Nebuchadnezzar's. Belshazzar challenged God directly by making light of the vessels from the temple. The temple vessels were just as powerless in themselves as the Babylonian gods of gold, silver, and bronze. But through their use in Israel's worship life, they had come to be symbols of the presence of God. To make light of them was to make light of the events of salvation they were used to commemorate.