Since the book of Daniel is only twelve chapters and spans a period of about seventy years, we aren’t getting a very detailed account of all that is going on. Daniel is basically giving us the highlights from his vantage point. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign ends abruptly and unceremoniously in chapter 4. We don’t hear details of his death from Daniel, or any other Biblical references of Nebuchadnezzar found in 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, or Jeremiah. Nebuchadnezzar is king of Babylon for around 43 years, and Daniel serves him for about 23 years. There are basically 4 transitions of power or regime changes in the book of Daniel, and we see three of those in two chapters, Daniel 4&5.
Nebuchadnezzar is succeeded by Amel-Marduk or King Belshazzar. Not much is known about him from Biblical or historical records of the time. His reign is short lived, only a couple of years. He only appears Biblically in Daniel 5, as Belshazzar, and as Awel-Marduk in 2 Kings 25:27-28 and Jeremiah 52:31-32. He is one of Nebuchadnezzar’s sons, and there seems to be some speculation that his reign didn’t begin very well. It doesn’t end very well either. He may not have been Nebuchadnezzar’s eldest son and not a worthy or legitimate heir. However, brief his reign and appearance in the book of Daniel, it is a dramatic one, like something out of Star Trek or the Twilight Zone.
Daniel 5 begins with a banquet given by Belshazzar for a thousand of his nobles. It’s probably a PR campaign to legitimize his rule, wining and dining them to win them over. During the party, he orders the gold and silver goblets that his father had taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem be brought out for everyone to drink from. As they drink from them and praise their gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone this happens.
5Suddenly 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. 6His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking. Daniel 5:5-6 NIV
We don’t know how much wine had been consumed before this, but it sounds like Belshazzar sobers up rather quickly. He is terrified and rightly so. I mean how many hands just appear out of thin air and start writing on the wall. I guess we can say that this is the literal “handwriting on the wall”.
Belshazzar, like his father immediately calls for the wisemen of Babylon, the enchanters, astrologers, and diviners. Apparently, he didn’t learn anything from his father’s encounters with the “Most High”. As usual the wisemen of Babylon can’t make heads or tails of the meaning of the “handwriting on the wall”, and everybody’s freaking out, so who are they going to call? GHOSTBUSTERS! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Well fortunately for the king, his wife was paying attention during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and says, “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! 11There 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. 12He 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 5:10-12)
It cracks me up when she says, “don’t look so pale”. It almost has a mocking tone to it, like she is rolling her eyes and probably thinking, “what a drama queen”. Anyway, Daniel is brought before the king and Belshazzar says, “I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom.” (Daniel 5:14 NIV) Remember Daniel is just a slave who believes in a God that is not popular or widely recognized in this foreign culture, and yet he his influence is still clearly evident at the highest levels. Belshazzar continues, “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 5:15-16 NIV)
I love Daniel’s response in verse 17. “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else.” In your face Belshazzar! I’m kidding. We shouldn’t have that kind of attitude, and I’m sure Daniel’s response wasn’t that confrontational. By this time Daniel has probably had enough of all the royal pandering, and just wants to get down to business. He’s just there to interpret and relay God’s message. However, he doesn’t begin by interpreting the handwriting on the wall instead he proceeds to give Belshazzar a brief history lesson of his father Nebuchadnezzars failure to humble himself before the “Most High God”, and what it cost him. Daniel also points out that Nebuchadnezzar finally got the message and recognized that the “Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.” (Daniel 5:21 NIV)Then without hesitation, Daniel tells Belshazzar “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”. (Daniel 5:22-23 NIV). Basically, Daniel is saying, “you knew better because of what happened with your dad, but you did it anyway”. So, what did Belshazzar do exactly? It seems that the “Most High God” isn’t thrilled that the sacramental goblets of gold and silver taken from His temple are being used inappropriately for a party, and especially to praise or celebrate other “gods”, and that’s a BIG NO-NO! (See first commandment in Exodus 20)
So, without further ado, here is what was written on the wall and what it means.
25“This is the inscription that was written: mene, mene, tekel, parsin 26“Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. 27 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. 28 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”Daniel 5:25-28 NIV
After his interpretation, Daniel is rewarded for his ability and service to the king, but before the night is over Belshazzar is dead, and Darius the Mede takes over. God deals with Belshazzar swiftly, unlike his father, no second chances.
Again, Daniel’s remarkable faithfulness to God and wisdom are on full display. He could have been killed immediately for being so direct and outspoken telling Belshazzar that he’s “set himself against the Lord of heaven” before the interpretation of the message. He could’ve waited until after the interpretation and just said, “hey dude, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just telling you what it says on the wall”, but Daniel wants the king to know why this message has been written so mysteriously on the wall, and Who wrote it before revealing it’s meaning.
We have no way of knowing Daniel’s tone as he delivers God’s message, but I would guess that it was calmly and humbly delivered. I know God was protecting Daniel, but I doubt Daniel would have lasted very long in Babylon or been able to maintain his level of influence if he would have been an obnoxious, aggressive, judgmental, or “in your face” radical extremist. When I think about this, it makes me think about Billy Graham. It was very clear what he believed throughout his life and ministry. He didn’t compromise God’s message, and yet he was able to serve-minister to 12 consecutive US presidents from both parties. Billy was widely admired and respected whether people agreed with him or not because he was reasonable, calm, and humble. He, like Daniel, did things the right way, God’s way, and people paid attention.
Have a great weekend! Love y’all!
Director of Family Ministry and Facility Coordinator – Andrews UMC