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Daniel 5:1-31

Introductory comments:

First, we need to review the historical circumstances. Neb died in 562 b.c. after 43 years on the throne of Babylon. He was succeeded by his son Amel-Marduk who was assassinated by his brother-in-law Neriglissar (also spelled Nergal-shar-usur) after reigning only 2 years (562-60 b.c.; for more on Amel-Marduk, also called Evil-Merodach, see 2 Kings 25:27-30; Jer. 52:31-34). Neriglissar may well be the Nergalsharezer of Jer. 39:3,13, who, while an official under Neb, secured Jeremiah's release from prison in 586 b.c. He died in 556 after but 4 years on the throne and was succeeded by his son Labashi-Marduk, who ruled only 9 months before being assassinated by a group of court conspirators. One of the conspirators, Nabonidus, was appointed king and ruled until Cyrus overthrew Babylon in 539 b.c.

According to Wood, 'Naboindus (556-539 b.c.) was probably the most capable ruler following Nebuchadnezzar. Of priestly lineage, he was deeply religious and rebuilt the temple of the god Sin in Haran, excavated temple sites in Babylonia, and restored long-abandoned rites. He differed from other rulers in choosing to be absent from his capital for extended periods of time. It is well evidenced that he even maintained a separate royal residence at Tema in Arabia, southeast of Edom, and for one period of fourteen years did not so much as visit his capital city (129-30).

Most are agreed that Nabonidus left Babylon for Tema for religious reasons. Nabonidus worshiped the moon God Sin, while most Babylonians worshiped Marduk. Perhaps he believed Babylon had been cursed by Sin or moved to Tema because there the worship of the moon god was more prominent.

Second, Belshazzar was for many years (until the last half of the nineteenth century) declared by liberal critics to be a literary and historical fiction (no fewer than 37 archival texts have been discovered that attest to Bel's historicity. See P. A. Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539 b.c. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989], p. 90). He was the son of Nabonidus (on the historicity of Bel, see Lesson #1, pp. 2-3; and especially Robert Dick Wilson, Studies in the Book of Daniel [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 (1917)], pp. 96-127). It was during Nabonidus's repeated and extended absences from Babylon that Bel ruled as co-regent, thus rightly deserving the title 'king predicated of him by Daniel in chapter 5. According to Dan. 5:7,16,29, Bel promised that he who could interpret the handwriting on the wall would be appointed 'third ruler in the kingdom, i.e., promised to make him a triumvir. If this is the correct interpretation of the verse it would harmonize well with the historical evidence: a triumvirate over Babylon consisting of Nabonidus, Belshazzar, and eventually Daniel.

Third, the fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Persian king is well-documented. See the appended material by Leon Wood (pp. 130-31). We thus see in Dan. 5 the fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Dan. 2:39a. For other biblical references (prophecies) to the ultimate demise of Babylon, see Isa. 13:17-22; 21:1-10; Jer. 51:33-58.

See Rev. 16:12-16 (the sixth bowl) for a similar event related to Armageddon.

Fourth, the chronological relation between Dan. 5 and Dan. 7,8 should be noted. The visions of chp. 7 were revealed to Daniel 'in the first year of Belshazzar (7:1a). The visions of chp. 8 occurred 'in the third year of Bel's reign (8:1a). Therefore, Daniel had been informed by God in these visions that Babylon would indeed fall to the Medes and Persians (this also had been revealed many years earlier in the image of Neb's dream, recorded in chp. 2). It is probable that Bel began his co-regency with Nabonidus his father when the latter went to Tema in 553 b.c. Thus the time of these visions would be:

Chp. 7 553 b.c. (1st year of Bel)

Chp. 8 551 b.c. (3rd year of Bel)

Chp. 5 539 b.c. (14th and final year of Bel)

Fifth, another problem that has prompted critics to deny the historical accuracy of Daniel is the repeated declaration in chp. 5 (vv. 2,11,13,18,22) that Neb and Bel are father and son. As noted above, Bel's father was Nabonidus (although, Keil believes 'Belshazzar is simply another name for Evil-Merodach, Neb's actual son and successor; see his arguments on pp. 162-76). Aside from the fact that Neb may well have been Bel's grandfather, it should be remembered that the terms 'father and 'son need not refer to an immediate genetic relationship. For a summary of the evidence, see the material by R. D. Wilson (pp. 117-18).

Sixth, it is clear from the use of the term 'Babylon in the NT that the fall of that kingdom in the 6th century b.c. was a pre-figurement, a type, as it were, of the ultimate destruction of the entire Satanically inspired and orchestrated kingdom of evil that in every age and in every place asserts itself against the kingdom of God. We read of this in Rev. 17-18. Against the view that in Revelation 'Babylon = 'Rome Alan Johnson writes:

'It is simply not sufficient to identify Rome and Babylon. For that matter, Babylon cannot be confined to any one historical manifestation, past or future. Babylon has multiple equivalents (cf. 11:8). The details of John's description do not neatly fit any past city, whether literal Babylon, Sodom, Egypt, Rome, or even Jerusalem. Babylon is found wherever there is satanic deception. It is defined more by dominant idolatries than geographic or temporal boundaries. The ancient Babylon is better understood here as the archetypal head of all entrenched worldly resistance to God. Babylon is a transhistorical reality including idolatrous kingdoms as diverse as Sodom, Gomorrah, Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Nineveh, and Rome. Babylon is an eschatological symbol of satanic deception and power; it is a divine mystery that can never be wholly reducible to empirical earthly institutions. It may be said that Babylon represents the total culture of the world apart from God, while the divine system is depicted by the New Jerusalem. Rome is simply one manifestation of the total system (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 554).

The typological relationship between the destruction of ancient, geographic Babylon and the ultimate destruction of modern, cosmic Babylon should not be missed. On this subject, see the paper by Hans K. LaRondelle, delivered at the 36th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (12/13/84).

A.             The Feast 5:1-4


'With the armies of a conqueror pressing at the capital this deputy ruler took refuge in an orgy of wine (Baldwin, 119). Daniel was probably over 80 years old by this time. The feast itself, involving 1,000 people, was not unusual. We have records of a Persian king feeding 15,000 men daily from his table. The marriage festival of Alexander involved 10,000 guests. There is also record of Ashusnasirpal II (879 b.c.) giving a feast for 69,574 guests when he dedicated a new capital city of Calah.

The historicity of this feast has been confirmed by extra-biblical sources. Both the Greek historians, Herodotus and Xenophon, testified that a great banquet was in progress on the night Babylon fell (probably October 12, 539 b.c., about thirty years subsequent to the events of chapter four.

The 'vessels referred to in v. 2 are those taken by Neb from the temple in Jerusalem. They had apparently remained untouched/unused for these 50 years. Possibly under the influence of too much wine (cf. Prov. 31:1-9), Bel lost all sense of decency, threw caution to the wind, and openly defied the God of Israel by using them in his drunken orgy. The word translated 'tasted in v. 2 'seems to carry with it the idea not only of sensing the flavor of the wine but feeling its effects, that is, being 'under the influence of the wine' (Miller, 152).

'The wickedness lay in this, that they drank out of the holy vessels of the temple of the God of Israel to glorify their heathen gods in songs of praise. In doing this they did not only place 'Jehovah on a perfect level with their gods' but raised them above the Lord of heaven, as Daniel charged the king (v. 23). The carrying away of the temple vessels to Babylon and placing them in the temple of Bel was a sign of the defeat of the God to whom these vessels were consecrated; the use of these vessels in the drinking of wine at a festival, amid the singing of songs in praise of the gods, was accordingly a celebrating of these gods as victorious over the God of Israel. And it was not a spirit of hostility aroused against the Jews which gave occasion . . . to this celebration of the victory of his god; but, as the narrative informs us, it was the reckless madness of the drunken king and of his drunken guests (cf. v. 2a) during the festival which led them to think of the God of the Jews, whom they supposed they had subdued along with His people, although He had by repeated miracles forced the heathen world-rulers to recognize His omnipotence (180-81).

A question often asked is: 'The Persian armies of Cyrus were camping outside the city walls. Just days earlier the Babylonians had lost a crucial battle to the Persians and Nabonidus had fled. Why, then, would Belshazzar have hosted a feast such as this? Three explanations have been given:

*          The feast might have been designed to boost morale and build courage among the people. The Euphrates provided sufficient water for the people inside and enough food had been stored to last for several years. Was Bel trying to display a self-confidence that would bolster the spirits of his people? Perhaps 'Belshazzar was assuring his subjects that the gods of Babylon, and he as their earthly representative, were capable of protecting them (Miller, 154).

The amazing thing, which only serves to aggravate Bel's arrogance, is that Daniel had already prophesied Babylon's fall to the Persians (2:36-45; 8:1-4,15-20) as had Isaiah, who even mentioned the specific name of Cyrus, the Persian king, 150 years before he invaded Babylon!

*          Perhaps this was something of a coronation of Belshazzar. Nabonidus had fled two days earlier, leaving Bel as the de facto ruler. Was this a feast honoring him as the true king of Babylon?

*          Others suggest that this was a customary feast, always observed at this time of the year, that just happened to fall during a militarily inopportune moment. The Persians simply took advantage of the excessive drinking of their enemies.

B.             The Handwriting on the Wall 5:5-9


1.              the handwriting 5:5

There is some disagreement as to what exactly appeared. Some (Young, 120) say the entire hand from the wrist to the tips of the fingers is meant, while others (Wood, 135; Keil, 181) say only the fingers were visible. The room where this all took place may have been discovered by the archaeologist Koldeway (March, 1899). It was 55 feet wide by 169 feet long, and had plastered walls. He also tells of a niche in one of the long walls, opposite the entrance, in which he suggests the king may have been seated during times of feasting.

Lacocque suggests that only Bel 'saw the handwriting. In fact, it was a 'vision of sorts induced by his drunken delirium. But how, then, was it possible for the wisemen and Daniel to see the writing as well?

2.              Belshazzar's response 5:6

'See how he [Bel] affronts God, and God affrights him! (M. Henry). This is a typical description in the OT for stark terror (cf. Is. 21:3; Nahum 2:10; Ezek. 21:11; Ps. 69:24). The phrase 'his face grew pale = lit., his 'splendor changed, i.e., he turned white as a ghost! 'His hip joints went slack = lit., 'the joints of his loins were loosened.

3.              the summoning of the Babylonian wisemen 5:7

4.              their inability to interpret the inscription 5:8

5.              the response of Bel and his nobles 5:9

C.             The Queen's Counsel 5:10-12


Who is this woman? Two views are suggested: (1) the wife of Nabonidus and thus the mother of Bel (Baldwin, 122; Wood, 140); (2) the widow of Neb (Young, 122; Ford, 127; Keil, 185; Lacocque, 97).

D.            Daniel's Appearance 5:13-16

Bel's unfamiliarity with Daniel may be due to the fact that it had been 23 years since Neb died. Daniel probably did not retain the exalted position in subsequent regimes that he had while Neb lived. Most believe Daniel was in semi-retirement of sorts.

E.             Daniel's Interpretation 5:17-28


1.              Daniel refuses the offer of reward 5:17

This was certainly to avoid the appearance of self-interest and to demonstrate that irrespective of the consequences he is determined to speak the truth. 'That he did finally accept them [the gifts], as verse 29 indicates, likely was because the message had then been given, and no longer could any observer think of him as having been influenced by them. If the king still wished to bestow them after the dire warning had been given, that was his business, and Daniel needed no longer to refuse (Wood, 145).

2.              the reason for the revelation 5:18-24

a.              Neb's power 5:18-19

The chapter began with reference to what Neb took ('the vessels). Daniel invites Bel now to think in terms of what Neb was given. The 'vessels should have reminded him of Yahweh who gave them into Neb's hand (see 1:2).

b.              Neb's punishment 5:20-21

c.              Bel's imitation of Neb's sin 5:22-24

It may well be that Bel had actually witnessed Neb's humiliation first-hand. He had served as a chief officer in 560 during Neriglissar's reign, which was only two years after Neb's death. It is likely, therefore, that he was present in Babylon when Neb experienced his bout with boanthropy.

The gods to whom Bel prayed and sang praises are now seen for precisely what they are: lifeless lumps of earthly material, wholly impotent in the spiritual realm (cf. Deut. 4:28; Pss. 115:5-7; 135:16-17; Isa. 44:9; Rev. 9:20).

Note: It is not merely believers whose lives are subject to the providential oversight of God. Here we read of God 'in whose hand are the 'life-breath and 'ways of Bel, an unbeliever. Cf. Acts 17:28 ('in Him we live and move and have our being).

3.              the meaning of the revelation 5:25-28

Some have contended that the terms are measures of money:

*          Mene = the maneh of Ezek. 45:12; Ezra 2:69

*          Tekel = the Hebrew shekel

*          Peres = the peras or half-shekel (upharsin is the plural of peres with the Aramaic conjunction 'u [and])


There are other theories concerning the meaning of these terms, but the most likely is:

*          Mene = a passive participle that means 'numbered or 'reckoned. Thus Daniel's interpretation that Bel's days have been numbered by God, i..e., their beginning and end are determined by Him.


*          Tekel = a passive participle that means 'weighed. Bel has been 'weighed in the balance by God and found too 'light; i.e., he is lacking moral and spiritual 'weight or worth (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3).


*          Peres = a passive participle that means 'broken or 'divided. Bel's kingdom (the Babylonian kingdom) was about to be broken and given over the Medes and Persians.

Goldingay suggests that these three words 'hint at three moments in God's dealings with him as king, the past moment when he appointed him, the present moment when he is evaluating his performance, and the coming moment when he breaks off his dynasty because of its failure (116).

The question has been raised as to why the Babylonian wisemen could not read the inscription (v. 8). They were thoroughly educated in linguistics and no doubt were as competent as Daniel in this regard. Some argue that the words were understood but their meaning was not. Perhaps the inscription consisted of a series of abbreviations that were not immediately recognizable. Young contends that according to Jewish tradition the words were written in Hebrew, but vertically rather than horizontally. Or it may simply be that God employed shapes of letters that even Daniel would not have known apart from divine revelation.

F.             Belshazzar's Response and the Elevation of Daniel 5:29

G.            The End of Babylonian Rule 5:30-31


That very night the Babylonian empire came to its end. Belshazzar was executed by the conquering Medo-Persian soldiers. Xenophon, famous Greek historian, made note of the fact that it was precisely because of this festival that the Persians chose to attack on that particular night.