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Daniel 5:1-31 – The Writing on the Wall


Belshazzar 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.


Daniel 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.

Daniel 5:1-31

Belshazzar’s Feast

5King Belshazzar made a great festival for a thousand of his lords, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.

Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. 3So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver* that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. 4They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

The Writing on the Wall

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. 6Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. 7The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’ 8Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. 9Then King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.

10 The queen, when she heard the discussion of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting-hall. The queen said, ‘O king, live for ever! Do not let your thoughts terrify you or your face grow pale. 11There is a man in your kingdom who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods.* In the days of your father he was found to have enlightenment, understanding, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners,* 12because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.’

The Writing on the Wall Interpreted

13 Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king said to Daniel, ‘So you are Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? 14I have heard of you that a spirit of the gods* is in you, and that enlightenment, understanding, and excellent wisdom are found in you. 15Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and tell me its interpretation, but they were not able to give the interpretation of the matter. 16But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’

17 Then Daniel answered in the presence of the king, ‘Let your gifts be for yourself, or give your rewards to someone else! Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and let him know the interpretation. 18O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar kingship, greatness, glory, and majesty. 19And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. He killed those he wanted to kill, kept alive those he wanted to keep alive, honoured those he wanted to honour, and degraded those he wanted to degrade. 20But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he acted proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was stripped from him. 21He was driven from human society, and his mind was made like that of an animal. His dwelling was with the wild asses, he was fed grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until he learned that the Most High God has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and sets over it whomsoever he will. 22And you, Belshazzar his son, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this! 23You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven! The vessels of his temple have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them. You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honoured.

24 ‘So from his presence the hand was sent and this writing was inscribed. 25And this is the writing that was inscribed: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. 26This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of* your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; 28peres,* your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’

29 Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed in purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made concerning him that he should rank third in the kingdom.

30 That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed. 31*And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.

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