The Point: Call sin what it is and point to what God says about it.
Daniel Interprets the Handwriting: Daniel 5:17-28.
 Then Daniel answered and said before the king, "Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another. Nevertheless, I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation.  O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty.  And because of the greatness that he gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. Whom he would, he killed, and whom he would, he kept alive; whom he would, he raised up, and whom he would, he humbled.  But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him.  He was driven from among the children of mankind, and his mind was made like that of a beast, and his dwelling was with the wild donkeys. He was fed grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, until he knew that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will.  And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this,  but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. And the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them. And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.  "Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed.  And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN.  This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end;  TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting;  PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians." [ESV]
“The story in chapter 5 starts with Belshazzar’s feast [1-4]. Outwardly, this was a glorious event, full of pomp and circumstance, in which a thousand nobles were invited to drink wine with the king . By focusing our attention on this elaborate feast as the sole event worth mentioning in his account, the narrator subtly underlines for us the emptiness of the remainder of Belshazzar’s life. Unlike his illustrious father, King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed cities and carried off plunder, made mighty statues, and built the wonders of royal Babylon, the only thing that Belshazzar could make was a feast. The former built an empire, while the latter planned a party. Even the centerpiece of Belshazzar’s feast – the golden vessels that had been taken from the Jerusalem temple – had been carried off by Nebuchadnezzar, not Belshazzar. Belshazzar’s only contribution was to profane those sacred and precious vessels from the Lord’s house by using them for a feast at which he praised his own gods – gods made out of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone [3-4]. Belshazzar didn’t have long to enjoy his feast, however. Even while he and his nobles were praising their man-made gods, a revelation from God disturbed his revelry [5-9]. Belshazzar was totally undone by the experience of a revelation from God: the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together . When his wise men could not interpret the dream, Belshazzar was left pale-faced and indecisive, at a loss to know how to proceed. It was left to a woman, the queen mother, to solve King Belshazzar’s dilemma, a scenario which would have been humiliating in an ancient cultural context. She reminded Belshazzar of the existence of Daniel, whose ability to interpret knotty problems had been repeatedly demonstrated during the time of his illustrious predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar [10-12]. The implication of her speech is that Belshazzar ought to have known to whom he should turn when in need of divine illumination – and he would have known, if only he were more like Nebuchadnezzar. In the event, the king decided to follow the woman’s advice [13-17]. The queen mother’s implicit rebuke perhaps explains the defensive tone in King Belshazzar’s voice when Daniel was finally summoned before him. He addressed him not as the Daniel whom his father made chief of his wise men, but as the Daniel whom his father brought in exile from Jerusalem. He wanted to put Daniel firmly in his place at the outset. What is more, he placed a question mark over the claims of Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams by prefacing them with I have heard [14,16]. In return, Daniel’s response omitted the usual deferential politeness of the Babylonian court. He told King Belshazzar bluntly that he might keep his rewards: Daniel’s services were not for sale to the highest bidder, giving a favorable interpretation of a dream only if the price was right . However, before he interpreted the mysterious writing for Belshazzar, Daniel first put the oracle into its context, a context that once again compared and contrasted Belshazzar and his father Nebuchadnezzar . By implication, Daniel was suggesting that the Lord had given no similar sovereignty or glory to Belshazzar. Yet even though Nebuchadnezzar had received from the Lord true greatness and majesty, with godlike powers to raise up and to humble, to kill and to keep alive, when he became arrogant, the Lord had humbled him and brought him down form his lofty perch [19-21]. The point of Daniel’s speech is clear: King Nebuchadnezzar had had something to be proud about, yet the Lord had humbled him. Belshazzar, who certainly fell far short of Nebuchadnezzar’s achievements, should have learned from this experience and humbled himself as well. Instead, although Belshazzar knew what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar, he had still exalted himself against the Lord, sacrilegiously profaning the temple vessels from Jerusalem by using them in an idolatrous act of worship. He had praised his powerless idols, while neglecting the one true God who gave him his very life-breath. Daniel brought this charge against him, explaining why God was warning him in this way [22-24]. Weighted and Found Wanting. Daniel then read and interpreted the oracle: And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin . If read as they stand, they form a sequence of weights, decreasing from a mina, to a shekel, to a half shekel. Read as verbs, however, the sequence becomes a series of verbs: “Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided.” As Daniel himself explained it, the Lord had numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom and brought it to an end because King Belshazzar had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. As a result, his former kingdom would be divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. Did King Belshazzar believe Daniel’s interpretation of the inscription? We will never know for sure. Certainly he gave Daniel the promised reward . Yet even this was an empty gift, for that very night, the Medes and the Persians entered Babylon: That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old [30-31]. Belshazzar’s party is thus exposed as the ultimate act of folly: he was feasting on the brink of the grave and celebrating on the edge of extinction, and he never even knew it. With Belshazzar’s death, Babylon’s empire was itself brought crashing to the ground, its feet of clay revealed. The sequence of decay that the vision of Daniel 2 anticipated for world history – moving from gold to silver to bronze to fragile feet of iron and clay – found a foreshadowing within the history of the Babylonian empire. Like the sequence of weights in the oracle, the once mighty kingdom became insubstantial and was ultimately blown away by the judgment of God. Belshazzar’s Modern Counterparts. What lessons does this ancient narrative have for us, who live in an altogether different time and place in history? In the first place, the story of Belshazzar’s feast reminds us not to be awed and impressed by earthly power and wealth. God has weighed it in the balance and found it wanting; he will soon bring it to an end. God’s power to bring down those who are truly mighty was a central theme in Daniel 4. If God is thus able to humble the mighty, how much more is He able to bring down an empty windbag like Belshazzar! Yet in our culture we are apt to elevate and adulate not only those who have real accomplishments, but even those with empty pretensions. We are much too easily impressed by all that glitters, whether or not it is truly gold. For evidence of this, all you have to do is look at the celebrities who are pictured on the covers of magazines at the local supermarket. Their ranks may include some who have genuine achievements, yet the vast majority have contributed little substantive in which to boast. In our culture we idolize those who are physically attractive, those who have acquired great wealth, and even those who are famous simply for being famous. Belshazzar’s feast is set before us every day, and many around us are mortgaging their futures for an invitation to the ball. It is not just the rich and the famous that we idolize, either. Our envy operates at a far more mundane level as well. We covet not only the assets and the lifestyle of multimillionaires, but those of our neighbors as well. We envy our neighbor’s car, or good looks, or successful career, or obedient children. Alternatively, if we have some small successes of our own, we boast in our petty assets and lifestyle, perhaps glorying in our fine house, or thriving reputation in our field of business, or trim figure. The reality is that we are all tinpot Belshazzars, puffed up by our miniscule achievements. Even though they may not amount to much on an earthly scale, let alone a heavenly one. God’s judgment on our empty pride is severe: our deeds and accomplishments have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. When we stand in God’s presence, we have nothing of which to boast. Belshazzar’s ability to close his eyes to reality has a contemporary ring to it in every age. Just as Belshazzar feasted even while the armies of his Median and Persian adversaries were encamped outside his gates, so too rebellious humanity actively suppresses the truth about God that bombards their senses on every side [Rom. 1:18]. Many around us eat and drink and busily pursue an actively sinful lifestyle, all the while deliberately ignoring God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures, in their consciences, and in the world. Just as Belshazzar used the temple vessels to praise his false gods, so too we take the things that belong to God and use them to feed our lusts and idolatries. Should we continue along that path, our fate is as deserved as it is certain. Yet it is not only Belshazzar who has been weighted in the balance and found wanting; his gods too have failed the test. Belshazzar praised his gods of wood and stone and gold and silver, ascribing to them glory and honor, yet his gods couldn’t keep the Lord’s messenger from disturbing the peace of his feast. Nor could they keep him safe from the Medes and the Persians. It may have seemed to the Babylonians that when they defeated Judah and destroyed their temple, they were thereby triumphing over Israel’s God as well. However, as the story of the Book of Daniel unfolded, it became clear that the reality was that Israel’s God could effectively defend the honor of His sacred vessels and the lives of His faithful servants, while Babylon’s gods were impotent. The Lord was able to save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, but Bel and Marduk had no power to save Belshazzar from the coming of the Persians. Whatever power Nebuchadnezzar possessed to conquer and kill had been granted to him by the Lord, the Most High God, and not by his idols [5:19]. Through his own profound experience of humbling, King Nebuchadnezzar eventually came to understand that truth and bow his knee before Israel’s God. In contrast, Belshazzar didn’t live long enough to find it out. He was humbled and crushed rather than being humbled and restored. Have you learned yet that this world’s idols are empty and powerless? Fame and fortune promise great rewards, but they are fickle masters. Wealth may seem to hold the key to an easy life, yet those who attain it discover that their lives become more complicated than ever. Beauty is fleeting and power is deceptive: none of these things can deliver true satisfaction and meaning in life. In the West, we are tempted to idolize freedom and democracy, as if these virtues had the power within themselves to transform our world. Yet, in the last analysis, all of these things are no more substantial than Belshazzar’s idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone. They are all great blessings when they come to us from the hand of the Most High God, who made the heavens and the earth, and all that they contain. Yet if we make these created things into our gods and forget our Creator, then we are just as foolish and blind as Belshazzar was, and we stand under the same judgment that he did. The Lord is the one before whom you should truly stand in awe. He holds your life in His hand, just as He held sway over Belshazzar’s life. He could bring you down to poverty in an instant, through ill health or misfortune, or He could snuff you out like a candle in death. The same is true of our vaunted political institutions: the Lord is the one who invested our country with its present strength and influence, and the Lord could humble us and bring us down in a moment, if He chose to do so. His faithful servants are the only ones who will truly endure, and His kingdom is the only one that will never came to an end. God’s Sovereign Mercy. As Christians, we may say that we believe these truths, but in practice we often act as if they were not true. Why is it that we are completely undone by far less threatening scenarios than that which faced Belshazzar? Our hearts are wracked with worry if our job is merely threatened or if the car refuses to start; we are overwhelmed and despairing if our health breaks down or a treasured relationship ends; we respond angrily to people who insult us and damage our pride. These responses reveal our hearts every bit as clearly as Belshazzar’s feast revealed his pride and the idols in which his trust was placed. We are all functional Belshazzars. Our excessively strong negative emotions show that we have invested these things – our jobs and our health, our relationships and our comfort, our status and achievements – with divine importance, even while at the same time we confess with our lips that Jesus Christ is our Lord. We take the very things that God has given us – our bodies, our talents, our spouses, our children, our positions of influence and leadership, and our achievements of varying kinds – and we use them to offer worship to our empty idols. If we were to be weighed in God’s balance, we would all be found wanting, profoundly guilty of Belshazzar’s sin; we are, at best, “half-shekel” believers who deserve to be blown away by God in His wrath. We should therefore be astonished that God continues to show us His mercy. Taken together, Daniel 4 and 5 show us God’s utter sovereignty in salvation. He showed mercy to King Nebuchadnezzar in spite of his earlier persecution of God’s people. He humbled him and brought him to the point where he truly understood the reality of God’s power over him and bowed the knee before him. Yet there was no such mercy for Belshazzar. His humbling did not bring him to the point of repentance, but only to the point of death. So also God will bring down all of the proud. Some He will humble redemptively, opening their eyes to see their true need for God and bringing them to bow their knees to Him. Others will merely be brought down to death, shown ultimately in a final moment of terror that their whole life has been an empty sham and that now they are doomed to destruction and eternal separation from God. We cannot presume on God’s mercy. God sovereignly bestows His grace where and when He sees fit. The Depth of God’s Mercy. For those of us who have had our eyes opened by God’s grace to see our emptiness, this story should act as yet another reminder of the depth of His mercy. Why should I have been chosen as a recipient of His grace, while He passed over others who have accomplished far more with their gifts and have led much more moral lives than I? Who am I that I should receive an invitation to His feast, while others are left unsummoned? There is nothing in me that makes me worthy of such a great inheritance. The only explanation is God’s sovereign mercy that chose me in spite of my stubborn pride and self-centeredness, and then opened my eyes to the depth of my lostness without Christ. How high and how wide and how deep and how long is the love that the Lord has shown to me! [Duguid, pp. 77-89].
Questions for Discussion:
1. What do we learn about Belshazzar in Daniel, chapter 5? How does Daniel act before Belshazzar? Compare Belshazzar to Nebuchadnezzar?
2. What lessons can we learn from God’s treatment of Belshazzar?
3. What do we learn about God in these verses? Think about how God has shown His sovereign mercy to you.
Daniel, James Montgomery Boice, Baker Books.
Daniel, Iain Duguid, REC, P&R Publishing.
The Message of Daniel, Ronald Wallace, Inter Varsity.
The Prophecy of Daniel , Edward J. Young, Eerdmans.