Tell It Like It Is

These lessons skip chapter 4, but I believe that the purpose of the Nebuchadnezzar narrative is incoherent, and certainly incomplete, without it. I will give, therefore a brief synopsis of chapter four and its conclusion with the final humiliation and conversion of Nebuchadnezzar. One can hardly appreciate the poignancy of the confrontation with Belshazzar without it. In addition each teacher should give due emphasis to the parts of this narrative that are omitted from the suggested texts in the published lesson material.

Chapter 4 is presented as a testimony of converting grace from Nebuchadnezzar himself. God’s grace extended to the captor while the kings of Israel were dealt with justly.

I. 4:1-3 – Nebuchadnezzar gives the reason for this narrative –“to show the signs and wonders that the Most High has done for me.”

II. 4:4-18 – Nebuchadnezzar narrated his experience with a very detailed dream that none of the wise men of Babylon could interpret; He believed that Daniel could interpret it and so he told it to him in full.

III. 4:19-27, Daniel was given the interpretation by God, an interpretation that dismayed Daniel. It showed that Nebuchadnezzar’s domination had led to pride. He would, therefore, be humbled by the Most High by having all glory removed from him, even his human rationality and his fitness for human society and he would live among the beasts and eat grass like them. Daniel, therefore, appeals to Nebuchadnezzar; “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and you iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”

IV. 4:28-33 – After a year, Nebuchadnezzar looked upon all the plushness of his surroundings and rejoiced in his “mighty power” and all he had done for “the glory of my majesty.” He heard a voice from heaven that pronounced the judgment on him that had been present in his dream twelve months before, and immediately “he was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like a bird’s claws.

V. 4:34-37 – God restored his reason and changed his heart. He “praised and honored him who lives forever.” He was joyfully reconciled to the sovereignty of God – “None can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” He was restored to his power but with a clear subjection to the justice and rightful place of the pre-eminence of God. “All his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”

VI. Thus the preparatory work of God with Nebuchadnezzar culminated in the turning of the pagan to a hearty acceptance of the rightful glory of Yahweh and a humble submission to his rule over him. He saw God as a God who reveals mysteries, a God of superior power who protects those that remain faithful, and finally a God that he would praise and extol and honor and before whom the entire world should be humble.

Chapter 5 occurs some years after the close of chapter 4. Nebuchadnezzar had served for forty-six years as king, from 608 BC to 562BC. Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, ruled with the permission of Nabonidus who had seized power after some years of confusion subsequent to the death of Neb. Thus the term “third ruler” in 5:7, 16, 29. These events occur in the year 539 when the Persians took control under Darius the Mede. This is the divine perspective as to the reason for the fall of the Babylonian empire as predicted in chapter 2.

I. 5:1-5 The arrogant, irreverent ostentation of Belshazzar.

A. Belshazzar was not more sinful or irreverent than Nebuchadnezzar had been early in his reign and his life and kingdom could easily have been forfeited according to the justice of God. God’s purpose, however, was one of grace toward Nebuchadnezzar and quick justice toward Belshazzar.  “That God’s purpose of election might stand. . . . He has mercy on whomever he wills” (Romans 9:11, 18)

B. Belshazzar made a grand show of his hedonistic and materialistic outlook by parading his intent to be radically indulgent in destructive pleasure before the thousand at his great feast. Wine was the first feature of this intended debauchery and he included in this indulgence not only the nobility but “his wives and his concubines.”

C. Equal to his celebration of hedonistic materialism was his disdain for the religion of the captive people, the Hebrews. He brought out the implements intended for the celebration of their religious ceremonies in order to abuse them to purposes completely alien to the moral convictions of the Jews. They took those vessels, designed for use in typifying the sacrifice of the Son of God for the sins of his people and profaned them to a service in praise of “gods” of “gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.”

II. 5:5-9 – The frightening Appearance of a man’s hand

A. Very quickly upon the initiation of this gross abuse, a hand appeared to write upon stone. This is reminiscent of God’s having written the Ten Commandments with his own hand (Exodus 31:18). That was a word intended to give life, though it showed the wretched state of human rebellion; this was a word announcing condemnation and immediate destruction.

B. So frightening was this phenomenon that every physical sign of extreme fear and emotional perplexity came over Belshazzar. Uncontrolled muscular response, rapidly changing heart rate and blood flow, and an immediate cry for help. Those to whom he “called loudly” had no qualifications to help him. Often a clear presentation of the holiness and justice of God will result in heightened emotions but will also fall short of a saving response.

C. Even though he made a great promise to any that could interpret what had been written on the wall, none of his paganized, superstitious, idolatrous counselors could crack the code. It was a matter of divine revelation, and the natural eye cannot see the things of the Spirit of God. Over and above that, it was a matter of prophetic revelation and only the one to whom it was given to understand such mysteries could deliver without fear of error, the meaning of the divine message.

D. Paul claimed to be the recipient of this gift for the purpose of giving clear instruction of the truth of the gospel. His understanding of his role would be perfectly consistent with the history of divine intervention in the world for the sake of both judgment and mercy and to give knowledge of his purpose to men. In Ephesians 3:2-5, Paul wrote, “assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”

III. 5:10-12 – The Queen’s insistent confidence in Daniel.

A. When the Queen heard all this loud panic of words, she came into the banquet hall. One can only imagine why she was not there when the king had all his “wives and concubines” with him. She entered with the customary salute to the King, “O king, live forever,” How ironic that the occasion was his immediate judgment for physical death into the eternal condemnation of his Creator.

B. The queen is evidently quite aware of Daniel and the history of his relationship with Belshazzar’s father. The queen seems a bit perky and perhaps feels that her husband, the profligate figurehead king, is inferior in many ways to his father.

1. After her salutation, she points to his fear by telling him not to be so fearful.

2. She tells him of Daniel as one that can interpret the words written on the wall. She goes into a good bit of detail about Daniel, showing that she has made it her business to learn much about the previous reign, whereas her husband apparently was oblivious to these historical matters. Note how much she emphasizes the extraordinary powers granted to Daniel both by the “gods” and by Nebuchadnezzar.

3. She emphasizes the true kingly conduct of Belshazzar’s father. “King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him [Daniel] chief . . .” “whom the king named Belteshazzar.”

4. She states with unwavering confidence, “Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.” The deep impression made on her by both her father-in-law and Daniel could indicate that she became a believer along with Nebuchadnezzar, but the language does not permit us to be certain.

IV.5:13-16 – The King’s exuberant Plea and Promise to Daniel

A. Taking his clue from the queen, Belshazzar described what he has learned of Daniel and points out that his astrologers could not interpret the writing.

B. He promised Daniel all the trappings of royalty and an appointment to “third ruler in the kingdom.”  The world always operates from the standpoint of power and wealth. It is an unchanging culture that sees the ultimate good in material advantage or the prestige of position. That a person could be motivated by a higher vision of the glory of God, or sees an investment in eternity of far greater value and enduring good than immediate personal advantage seems dark, remote, and unsubstantial to them.

V. 5:17-23 – Daniel’s Sermon before Belshazzar – Before he interprets the writing he takes advantage of his appearance before the king to give a solemn warning. Both this sermon and the concise clarity of his forceful interpretation of the writing serve as a model for the gospel preacher of today. Though the good news we have to proclaim calls for an earnest exuberance and joyful countenance about the reality that God is a forgiving God, if one allows the truth about human sin and just condemnation to become a mere footnote to biblical proclamation, then grace will soon be seen as divine obligation and as license for human carelessness.

A. Daniel refused the promised honors but assures the king he will read the writing – 17

B. Daniel summarized the providence of God in the life of Nebuchadnezzar, pointing to God’s sovereignty in granting him power, and removing him from power because of his proud heart, reducing him to the level of a beast. Finally, he humbled Belshazzar’s father, the king, to a teachable frame and gave him humble dependence on God. (21).

C. Belshazzar, however, who knew all this, had not learned that lesson but had debased the true worship of Israel by his use of the ceremonial vessels, had vaunted himself against God by worshiping the creature instead of the creator. (22, 23a)

E. Daniel reminded Belshazzar that he was utterly dependent on God for every breath, and all the moments of his days were in the hand of and at the discretion of God. (23)

F. This sermon was to prepare Belshazzar for the reading that would follow immediately. Daniel was showing him that the ways of God are just and one must not presume on his mercy.

VI. 5:24-28 –  Parsing for Persia: Daniel’s Interpretation of the Vision.

A. The words, when pronounced, had a sound like words from Aramaic that meant numbered, weighed, and divided. The word for divided also sounded like the Aramaic word for Persia.

B. The interpretation, therefore, followed:

1. The days that God had numbered for Belshazzar’s reign had come to an end.

2. Belshazzar had been placed on God’s scale of righteousness and had come up too light. When the righteousness of the law is placed on one side of the scale and then our righteousness on the other, the scale does not move at all. All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags before God, our iniquities take us away like the wind and we melt under their weight (Isaiah 64:6, 7)

3. The kingdom is divided, that is, separated from Belshazzar, and given to the Medes and Persians.

VII. 5:29-31 – Promises Kept – On the precipice of destruction, in a final empty gesture (but faithful to his public announcement), Belshazzar kept his pledge and clothed the interpreter in purple, placing on him a chain of gold, and constituted him the third ruler in the kingdom.. The Mene Mene, however, meant that time was extremely short, the final numbering of days already had been given, and Belshazzar was killed that very night.

VIII. We find witness again in this narrative of the undiminished sovereignty and undisturbed holiness and dignified zeal of God. The people upon whom he placed his name were faithless generation after generation, have been given over to captivity, and yet in that situation of an apparent destitution of any witness in the world for the true God, he has reserved a remnant that preserves faithfulness in the earth and he himself works righteousness and proclaims his glory. He uses the situation of pagan domination to show that he will conquer and he will establish the reign of the rock (2:44, 45) and will gather a redeemed people from every nation.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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