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Corresponds with Sabbath School Study Guide: Oct 23-29

Background Considerations:

Chapter five in Daniel contains a story that is closely related to the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. In fact, this is the only place in the entire Bible that describes the fall of Babylon in historical terms. This chapter is also important from the point of view of biblical prophecy, because the interpretation of the first part of the dream in chapter two finds its fulfillment and confirmation in the historical event of the fall of the Babylonian Empire. Hence the events in the chapter should be dated to the year 539 B.C.

A question is often discussed as to how the city of Babylon was taken by the Medo-Persian army. An old view, based on a report from Herodotus, is that the river Euphrates was intentionally diverted so that the soldiers who had laid siege to the city could go in by the dry riverbed. This view is fostered by certain biblical passages that talk about the “drying up of the river Euphrates” (Isaiah 44:27; Rev 16:12). A fact that is often overlooked is that the prophetic passages that talk about the exile and return from Babylon are modeled after the exodus from Egypt. For that reason the Old Testament prophecies that talk about the drying up of the Euphrates also talk in the same way about the drying up of the river of Egypt, a clear allusion to God’s act of salvation at the Red Sea. Since the fall of Babylon can be dated with precision to the 16th of Tishri when the Euphrates is at its lowest tide, was there a need to divert the river in order to use its bed to enter the city?

Another possibility is that the city of Babylon fell because the soldiers who were sympathetic to Cyrus opened its gate so that the Medo-Persian army could go in without damaging its walls. The words from Isaiah’s book “to open doors before him [Cyrus] so that gates will not be shut” (Isa 45:1) seem to add weight to this view of the fall of Babylon. (For an Old Testament parallel, see Nahum 2:6 and 3:13 that talk about the fall of ancient Nineveh). Robert Koldewey’s excavations on the site of the ancient city of Babylon have unearthed the royal palace in which the ominous banquet took place as well as a number of other objects that illustrate the power and architectural beauty of this ancient city.

Again a concentric-chiastic plan may be proposed for this chapter:

A. King’s feast (5:1-4)
B. Writing on the wall & queen’s speech (5:5-12)
C. Bel(te)shazzar meets Belshazzar (5:13-16)
B’. Daniel’s speech and the meaning of the writing (5:17-28)
A’. King’s death (5:29-31)

The story in the chapter opens with Belshazzar’s feast and closes with his death. The speech by the queen-mother is matched by Daniel’s rebuke and his interpretation of the cryptic writing on the wall. At the center of the chapter is a face to face encounter between two men who most likely bore the same Babylonian name. This part of the chapter had for purpose to give the reason for Babylon’s fall.

Relevant Biblical Passages

    • Daniel 5:1-4. The book’s narrative shifts rather abruptly from the glorious founder of Neo-Babylon to the last king whose rights to be called “king of Babylon” have been questioned by many. There are several oddities in this passage. One is that, even though the city was about to be attacked by the Medo-Persians, Belshazzar throws a huge party for “a thousand of his nobles.” Another is the presence of ladies at a party where the king and the nobles eat and drink excessively. Still another is the strange command to bring in the holy vessels that had been taken from the temple of Jerusalem so that the king and his officers may drink from them and at the same time praise their idols. What was the purpose of this banquet? Why did Belshazzar pick on the vessels from Jerusalem? There have been many attempts to explain the reason for this banquet. Was the banquet supposed to mark the tenth anniversary of Belshazzar’s reign in Babylon? Or, was this intended to be Belshazzar’s coronation ceremony since his father Nabonidus had fled in the face of the approaching Medo-Persian army? How seriously should one take the midrashic interpretation according to which Belshazzar had miscalculated the end of the seventy years of exile and had thought that the time was already past and in contempt for Jeremiah’s words he decided to desecrate the temple vessels?
    • Daniel 5:10-16. Neither Daniel nor the queen-mother (called Nitocris) were present (or invited?) at this banquet. How does the queen-mother describe Daniel? Why does she refer to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s father? How does the queen-mother’s attitudes toward Daniel compare to Belshazzar’s? Belshazzar contrasts Daniel “one of the exiles” with himself, the son of the glorious Nebuchadnezzar. Why does he do that? Do you think that he knew/remembered Daniel? How to explain verse 22 where Daniel says “though you knew all this”? What is the importance of the position “the third highest ruler in the kingdom”?
  • Daniel 5:22-29. At least one half of Daniel’s speech is about Nebuchadnezzar’s experience with God. Notice the contrasts between verse 18 that refers to “your father” and verse 22 that begins with “you his son.” Do you see any importance in Daniel’s reversal of the first two in the list of the elements of the idols? What concept does the weighing scale metaphor convey? Can you find a word play in verse 29? (Paras “divided” and “Persians”). Why did Daniel accept the gifts in spite of his previous refusal to do so (verse 17)?

Lessons for Life

There are several prophetic passages in the Bible that talk about the fall of Babylon, but in this chapter we have the only historical narrative report on this important event. The Book of Daniel presents the event that immediately precedes the fall as the encounter between two persons, one representing God and the other representing human pride and arrogance. Thus the teaching of the chapter points to the importance of obedience to the word of the God who holds in his hand the life of every human being, including the world emperors. Is this teaching relevant for today?

The events described in chapter five are a good illustration of the fact that God’s promises come to their fulfillments. The point that Babylon was not to last and rule the world forever is clearly stated in chapter two. Here we can see it fulfilled in history.

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