5:1-4 – The party that ended it all. Daniel 5 moves the book forward in time about thirty years after the events of chapter 4. The date can actually be fixed to October 12, 539BC (Miller 151) based upon certain historical records that give the date for the conquering of Babylon. However, Daniel had already seen the end of the kingdom of Babylon in several visions. He had a vision in the first year of Belshazzar’s reign (Dan.7) and again in the third year (Dan.8). Also, the prophets of Judah – Isaiah and Jeremiah – had spoken of the fall of Babylon even naming the conqueror of Babylon and then the deliverer of Israel as Cyrus the Persian (Isa.13:17-22; 21:1-10; 44:28-45:1; Jer.51:33-58). Belshazzar (Akkadian Bēl-šar-usur “Bel, protect the king”) is the “king” of Babylon serving while his father Nabonidus (the actual king) has remained away for the previous ten years at the city of Teima (Tayma) – perhaps due to his worship of the moon god Sin and failure to woship Marduk the chief god of Babylon, but there may have been other reasons for his absence as well including trying to keep control of the empire.
As it turns out, Nabonidus had just been defeated on the 10th of October, 539BC at Sippar (just 50 miles north of Babylon) without battle by the Medo-Persians who had also defeated him at Opis (ANET 306). Nabonidus fled, but would be captured after the fall of Babylon days later. His son, Belshazzar determined for some reason to have a drunken party knowing that the Medo-Persian armies were all about Babylon and had conquered much of the empire already. Why would he do such a thing? Perhaps because he did not believe Babylon could fall since it was considered impregnable and had storehouses for a very long siege, or perhaps he was trying to gain bravado in the face of great adversity and wanted to demonstrate how fearless he was of the outside situation to all of his household and kingdom. The text of Daniel, however, makes no mention at all of the defeat of Nabonidus or of the Medo-Persians at the gates until the very end of the chapter when the party has finished and all is accomplished as it was foretold – and even then it is only of the latter. Belshazzar apparently determined to invite as many guests as possible to celebrate and the text suggests something more than that he drank wine “with” them, but that he drank wine “in front of, before” (Aram. qŏbēl) them. This suggests the idea that he may have been making something of a spectacle of himself in front of these nobles. It is also something quite unimaginable that he included among those invited all of his wives and concubines. The text also seems to suggest that he was inebriated and this contributed to his failure to even recognize the social mores of superstition against desecrating sacred objects belonging to other gods – even the objects of gods from conquered nations.
Why was Nebuchadnezzar called his “father” if in fact Nabonidus was actually his father? All of the other records of history note that there had been several turn-overs of the kingdom since Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus himself had taken the throne, but was not a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar. The Aramaic (as the Hebrew also) for “father” carries the meaning of “grand-father,” “ancestor,” or may even suggest “successor” in some instances. It has been conjectured that the relation may have been through Belshazzar’s mother to Nebuchadnezzar making him a “son” and Nebuchadnezzar his “father” (on which see notes Dan.5:10ff).
Another question that suggests itself is why he should choose on such a night to drink from the sacred vessels of the temple in Jerusalem? Why specifically use those items? Did he also drink from the vessels of the other conquered people’s gods on that night or was it only of Israel’s God? The Scriptures do not tell us, but they do tell us that the king made a point to do this specifically with the vessels from Jerusalem that Nebuchadnezzar had taken (Dan.1:2) and then to proceed to praise “the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (compare also the same phrase in the “Prayer of Nabonidus” in 4QOrNab).
5:5-9 – The writing on the wall and the fear of the king. Just as the praises were being uttered to the gods while drinking the wine, suddenly a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster wall in a well lit place so the king could clearly see his judgment being written out. During excavations in the late 1800s and early 1900s a large throne room (56 feet wide and 173 feet long) was found with a plastered wall behind the throne wall likely being the very place Belshazzar held his last feast and saw the writing on the wall. The effect of the writing (it was on plaster and well lit so the king would not miss it) was immediate. He was terrified so thoroughly that he could not even stand as it were. He “called out” (lit. “called out with strength” or “loudly”) apparently frantic for an answer to the omen before him. Despite the promise of the gold chain and purple robe (signs of authority and blessing) and being made “the third highest ruler” (Aram. taltî) in Babylon (that is that he would become part of a triumvir), none of his wise men could read or interpret what was written. What would it mean to be “the third highest ruler” in this case? It seems likely he means that this person would be after himself who was after his father Nabonidus, but why someone might want such a position when the kingdom seems to be lost seems beyond Belshazzar to grasp. That those who were supposed to have the ability to understand and interpret such things were unable to do so only served to trouble him even more.
5:10-12 – The “queen” has an answer. Who is this “queen” and just what is her relationship to Belshazzar? Given that Daniel has already informed us that the wives and concubines of Belshazzar were all present at the party, it seems more likely this woman is not the “queen” of Belshazzar, but of Nabonidus. Thus she would be the “queen-mother” (see the NIV footnote for verse 10; on the place of the “queen” in the ancient Near East, Oppenheim 104). She may have been the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar (or the former wife as some suggest) and the wife of Nabonidus (see Josephus Ant.10.11.2; Miller 159-160). She seems to have heard of Daniel (perhaps from the times of Nebuchadnezzar) since she uses the same description found of him earlier (Dan.4:8, 9, 18) that he “has the spirit [Aram. rûah] of the holy [Aram. qodêsh] gods in him.” Further, she elaborates that in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel (who is in his eighties by the time of Belshazzar) was known to have “insight” (Aram. nahîrû) suggests illumination form God the source of all light (Dan.2:22), “intelligence” (Aram. śākletānû) indicates that Daniel not only possesses intellect or talent, but that he actually knows how to use it, and “wisdom” (Aram. hokmâ) “denotes in Daniel the supernatural intuition of an interpreter of dreams or omens, that wisdom which also belongs supremely to God (2:20)” (Goldingay 109-110). Daniel is actually attributed with having these attributes “like that of the gods,” something which set him above and beyond the others around him. The queen-mother is convinced that Daniel (Belteshazzar) was the one able to interpret this riddle of an omen for Belshazzar.
5:13-16 – The words of the king. Belshazzar calls for Daniel, but seems to regard Daniel in less high esteem than the queen-mother and refers to him immediately as one of the exiles. He also notably leaves off the “holiness” of the gods whose spirit was said to be in Daniel by the queen mother. Has he done this intentionally? He repeats that the others could not do for him what he needed and also repeats his promise of reward and honor if Daniel can read and interpret (Aram. peshar) the writing on the wall. He at least confesses that he has heard that Daniel can “solve difficult problems” (lit. “loosen knots” a metaphor concerning difficulties).
5:17-24 – The words of Daniel. Daniel does not wish the king long life as the queen-mother had done (Dan.5:10) and as he knows would be vain to do in this situation given the interpretation. He also renounces the gifts in exchange for delivering the message knowing that no message from God can be purchased (cf. 2 Nu.22:18; Ki.5:16). He begins with recounting the glories of Belshazzar’s “father” Nebuchadnezzar and then of Nebuchadnezzar’s fall from that status for a time because of his pride and arrogance. He reminds Belshazzar’s of God’s sovereignty over all of the kings and kingdoms of the world. Then he turns to Belshazzar and points to his pride and failure to humble himself and all of this in the midst of his drunken revelry with the vessels from the temple of Yahweh strewn about. He charges Belshazzar with having set himself “against the Lord (Aram. mārē’) of heaven” by profaning the holy, having others do likewise, and praising gods that “cannot see or hear or understand” (cf. Deut.4:28; Ps.115:4-8; 135:15-17; Hab.2:19; Rev.9:20). Above all, Belshazzar failed to honor and praise God who alone holds him and all in His hands. This is the explanation Daniel gives for the hand that wrote on the wall.
5:25-28 – The inscription of God. Exactly how the inscription was written is not clear. Was it written in Aramaic (and therefore without vowels) or Cuneiform (and therefore with vowels)? Was it written from right to left (as would have been normal) or up and down (as the rabbis propose)? Could it really not be “read” by the others of the court of Belshazzar and only by Daniel or does this have some other explanation for why he alone could “read” and “interpret” it? The words that were written were: mene (twice for emphasis?), tekel, parsin. The explanations that have been given include a monetary/weight explanation where mene is the minah which was equal to 60 shekels, the tekel was the Aramaic form for shekel which was a small sum, and the parsin (Aramaic plural for halves of the shekel; the ‘u’ before parsin in some translations and in the NIV footnote is the conjunction “and” in Aramaic and so should not be included as part of what was written). However, the most reliable answer is actually the one Daniel himself provides which is that each of these terms is the Aramaic passive participles. Mene meaning “count, appoint, or destine,” tekel “numbering, weighing,” and parsin from the verb meaning to “broken in half, divided” but also making a play on the name of the Persians since likely this was all written in Aramaic there would have been no vowels and the Aramaic consonantal letters PRSN could work for both the verbal form and the name of the people who were at the gates. These words that were written are explained by Daniel with Aramaic perfect verbs emphasizing the completeness of what God had determined to do that very night.
5:29-31 – The end of Babylon and the beginning of Medo-Persia. Belshazzar still gave the command that Daniel should be rewarded and exalted despite the prophetic interpretation and denouncement that had just been given to him. Did he think to take Daniel down with him if Babylon fell? Or did he not think this could be fulfilled and thought to persuade his guests and family that he was still in control of everything? It is notable that whereas Daniel began in exile as a lowly youth in training from a lowly conquered nation in the ‘mighty and vast’ empire of the Babylonians…he has been raised to the rank of third in the empire by the age of about 80 and will see the end of the Babylonians himself and will continue to be given an exalted status after the fall of Babylon and the rise of Medo-Persia. Daniel records that it was on “that very night” Belshazzar was killed. The prophecy was fulfilled concerning him (though Daniel would later record what had been given to him years before as written in chapters 7-8 during the reign of the wicked and unrepentant Belshazzar). In other words, the account of Belshazzar tucked as it is in between the accounts of Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 4 and Darius in chapter 6 suggests a tale of three kings…their response to God and to the man of God: Daniel. Two will give glory to God…one will not. It creates a sort of chiasm (a poetic structure where God is exalted and praised explicitly in chapter 4 and 6 and carries out his judgment against the wicked king without explicit praise in chapter 5, but demonstrates his sovereignty over every king and kingdom). This also prepares us for the “little horn” that will come and utter blasphemies and exalt himself and ultimately be humbled by the LORD, but not before the end.
We are informed that Darius the Mede “took over” (lit. “received”) the kingdom that night. In what sense did he actually “receive” the kingdom and from whom did he receive it? Also, it is still a curiosity just who “Darius the Mede” is. Some have proposed this is just another name, or title, for Cyrus the Persian (which may be likely). As such, we do not have enough to know beyond that Daniel has elsewhere accurately recorded things for us that have proven vindicated by archeology after being questioned for some time. It has been recorded (though Daniel does not do so) that the Medo-Persian army diverted the Euphrates River into a marsh from entering Babylon and then waded through the lowered waters and under the walls, into the city without a fight. All of this was recorded to have happened on a night while the city was engaged in a drunken revelry (cf. Herodotus Histories 1.188-192; Xenophon Cyropaedia 7.5.1-34). If Babylon had not been in such a state, but had been prepared for an attack the Medo-Persians could never have taken the city in this manner, but as it was the only one said to have died that night was Belshazzar who was put to death. John Goldingay offers an intriguing note on the mention of Darius’ age being “sixty-two”: “The years attributed to Darius ‘sum up’ another aspect of the omen’s meaning: he is the actual person who brings its fulfillment upon Belshazzar” by being the sum of 60(mene)+1(tekel)+halves(parsin)=sixty-two (Goldingay 112). Thus the kingdom of Babylon passes to the Medo-Persians just as the LORD had told His prophets over 150 years before. The fall of Babylon had been prophesied and foretold even that it would be accomplished by His causing them to be in a drunken state while feasting (Jer.51:39, 57). At last, deliverance has come for Israel (though not finally for Daniel).