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Relevant Verse: Daniel 5

Theme: Tragedy

Leading Question: Is there a time when it is too late to repent?

The story of the great feast of Belshazzar, the mysterious handwriting on the wall, and Daniel’s interpretation has been portrayed in art by Rembrandt (Belshazzar’s Feast, National Gallery, London), in music by George Friedrich Handel (Belshazzar oratorio, 1744) and Johnny Cash, in poetry by Lord Byron (Vision of Belshazzar, 1881) and Emily Dickinson (Belshazzar Had a Letter, 1924). It has given us the common expressions, “the handwriting on the wall” and “your days are numbered,” indicating a sure and soon danger and end.

In Daniel 4 and 5 we see royal arrogance humbled. Yet the outcome for Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar is totally different. One writes a chapter in the Bible, the other goes down in history as a fool who squandered the greatest empire humanity ever knew.

Question: Why was there such a diametrically opposing result between Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 and Belshazzar in chapter 5?

Daniel 5 contains the biblical story of the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the year 539 B.C.E. The question is often discussed as to how the city of Babylon was taken by the Medo-Persian army. One version of the fall of Babylon is based on a report from the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that the river Euphrates was intentionally diverted so that the soldiers who laid siege to the city could go in by the dry riverbed. This record is fostered by certain biblical passages that talk of the “drying up of the river Euphrates” (Isaiah 44:27). In this way, the exile and return of the Jews from Babylon is modeled after the exodus from Egypt. There too, the story tells of the drying up of the river of Egypt, as an allusion to God’s act of salvation at the Red Sea.

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 of Isaiah, “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.

Daniel 5 begins with the words: “King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.” Until the late nineteenth century, these introductory words in the description of the collapse of the Babylonian empire created a problem for scholars because no king named Belshazzar had ever been found on an ancient tablet. In 1861, archaeologist H. F. Talbot published cuneiform tablets from the Moon Temple at Ur of the Chaldees, Abraham’s birthplace. One of them contained a prayer of the Babylonian King Nabonidus for his eldest son, Belshazzar.

Twenty years later, in 1881, came the publication of another tablet confirming the information found in the already published tablet, plus a brief description of the events recorded in Daniel 5. Of equal value in the 1881 publication is the historical explanation of why Belshazzar is the key royal figure in the Daniel 5 epic. The second tablet notes that Nabonidus had been ill and stayed in Lebanon recuperating before setting out for a campaign against Tema, a desert oasis town on a caravan route about 500 miles south-west of Babylon. Before leaving for Tema, Nabonidus summoned Belshazzar and entrusted the throne to him. They served as co-regents for some three years. Tablets excavated in Borsippa, Iraq, show that Belshazzar executed his power in that he conducted business transactions and administrative functions in Babylon.

Robert Koldewey’s excavations on the site of the ancient city of Babylon have unearthed the royal palace in which the ominous banquet would have taken place as well as a number of other objects that illustrate the power and architectural beauty of this ancient city.

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: Belshazzar met Belteshazzar.

Daniel read and interpreted the words written on the wall by a mysterious hand: MENE MENE TEKEL U-PHARSIN. These were four words (MENE is repeated) with a double meaning: (a) we have here commercial language of buying and selling, which was familiar to Belshazzar; and (b) the contextual meaning as referred to in the interpretation.

Daniel provided both as he read the words to Belshazzar and explained their meaning.

MENE: mina, a measurement of c. 600g
TEKEL: shekel, measuring c. 10g
U-PHARSIN: two peras or two half minas, measuring c. 300g

In modern English one would say something like this: “A Dollar, a Dollar, a dime, and a penny.”

Looking closer into each of the words for the meaning and interpretation this is what we learn:

MENE derives from the verb, “to count, to determine, to finish.” The same verb was used in Daniel 1:5 when king Nebuchadnezzar “counted” or “determined” the daily food rations for the young men studying in his palace university. According to Daniel, the message for Belshazzar was, “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.” Belshazzar is like a merchandise that has been “counted,” “determined,” and “finalized.”

TEKEL is based on the verb, “to weigh out,” “to pay.” Daniel interprets, “you have been weighed and found wanting.” Belshazzar is weighed and found that he is a fraud.

U-PHARSIN is the plural form of paras, meaning, “to divide,” “break up,” “shatter to pieces.” In the Hebrew Bible, the verb paras used in a context of violence: “and break their bones into pieces” (Micah 3:3). The noun that developed from this verb is the peres, which is the word for the “eagle,” the bird of prey that tears its victims apart. Daniel seems to use the same word in reference to Persia and tells Belshazzar, “your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” In other words, Belshazzar is like a merchandise that falls prey to the Medes and Persians and is torn into pieces.

Questions: What is the significance of the fact that a mysterious writing appears on the wall announcing judgment on King Belshazzar and his kingdom? What lesson(s) did Nebuchadnezzar learn that his grandson did not? How do you pass on life lessons, faith, humility to the next generations?

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