Secrets to Success from the Book of Daniel, Part 5: The Feast of Fools

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Secrets to Success from the Book of Daniel, Part 5: The Feast of Fools

During his long life at the Babylonian court, Daniel must have participated in many feasts. But only one is recorded in his book and is perhaps the most dramatic episode of the entire story. Basically, God interrupted a merry and lavish banquet to declare with His very hand a death judgment. Such a sudden turn from ecstasy to despair may well be unique in Scripture. Let’s dig into the text and see what happened.

 

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Debauchery and Derision

 

We are in the year 539 B.C., about twenty years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death. Belshazzar, the ruling king, is Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson and a former head of the army. But in fifty years of life[1] he hasn’t yet learned to recognize God or accept His predictions concerning the fall of Babylon. Nor would he have the chance to, because death was at his footsteps.

 

His defiance was clear in his order:

 

bring the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. (5:2)

 

This is a man well familiar with Nebuchadnezzar’s experiences, but pride once again stood in the way of acknowledging God, and this time there was no turning back.

 

In his debauchery[2], Belshazzar is “commemorating the victory of Babylon over Jerusalem, the triumph of the god of Babylon over the God of Israel”[3] by drinking “the wine and prais[ing] the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (2:4). Notice that these are the same metals that made-up the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. He openly mocks God’s prediction of Babylon’s downfall. Belshazzar’s irreverence can be largely credited to his father, Nabonidus, a priest bent on restoring the rites of Babylon. By desacralizing the sacred, Belshazzar attempted “to prove that it was never sacred in the first place.”[4]

 

Scorn is Met with Sentence

The living God does not tolerate such scorn.

 

Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the back of the hand that did the writing. Then the king’s face grew pale and his thoughts alarmed him, and his hip joints went slack and his knees began knocking together. (5:5, 6)

 

He is literally shaken up and his face takes the color of the wall that bore his death sentence–before he even knew exactly what the writing meant. As usual, the king asks for an interpretation, but “the conjurers, the Chaldeans and the diviners” (5:7) cannot help, which only compounds his fear: “then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, his face grew even paler, and his nobles were perplexed.” (5:9)

 

Uncomfortable Recollections

 

At this point, the queen enters the scene with words of comfort as she recalls Daniel’s unique interpretive ability.

 

The queen entered the banquet hall because of the words of the king and his nobles; the queen spoke and said, ‘O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts alarm you or your face be pale. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is a spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of your father, illumination, insight and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him. And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, your father the king, appointed him chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans and diviners. This was because an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and insight, interpretation of dreams, explanation of enigmas and solving of difficult problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Let Daniel now be summoned and he will declare the interpretation.’ (5:10-12)

 

As Doukhan notes, the queen was most likely Nitocris, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar, for Belshazzar’s wife would have been too young to recall this, Nabonidus’ wife was at Terna, and his mother was dead. The text also aligns with the typical respect that would have been due to her and with her evident access to the court.[5]

 

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In an ironical twist, the king has no choice but to request assistance from the Jew who served the God he just mocked. But sarcasm seems to be Belshazzar’s second nature, as he asks Daniel:

 

Are you that Daniel who is one of the exiles from Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? (5:13).

 

By now an old man who had lived most of his life and held important positions at the Babylonian court, Daniel must have been well-known, yet clearly intentionally forgotten. When remembered, his Jewish ancestry and status of exiled is recalled in a diminishing and dismissing attitude. Nevertheless, the same gifts are promised him as the diviners:

 

Now if you are able to read the inscription and make its interpretation known to me, you will be clothed with purple and wear a necklace of gold around your neck, and you will have authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.” (5:16)

 

Daniel does not meet derision with his typical tact but answers coldly, harshly, and with little respect for someone deserving of no more:

 

Keep your gifts for yourself or give your rewards to someone else; however, I will read the inscription to the king and make the interpretation known to him.” (5:17)

 

He recalls Nebuchadnezzar’s experiences with God, and especially how pride drove him mad until he acknowledged God. Then he proceeds to disclose Belshazzar’s knowledge, which should have been a better guide to him.

 

Yet you, his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this, but you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of His house before you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear or understand. But the God in whose hand are your life-breath and all your ways, you have not glorified. (5:22-23)

 

Belshazzar knew the truth but he rejected it. His visceral reaction to the writing on the wall was a sudden grasp of the consequential magnitude of his error. He has not forgotten, he intentionally tried to bury the past–not only the past of Nebuchadnezzar, but the past creation of a humankind proceeding from the hand and breath of God (5:23).[6] Because of this, he has been judged and found wanting.

 

“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN”

 

The words in the inscription referenced measures of weight in commercial jargon: “lvfcne (the mina, 600 g.), Tekel (the shekel, 1 0 g.), Uplzarsin (a half mina, 300 g.).”[7] In the Semitic languages written words do not include vowels and sometimes have no pauses between them, so they can be read in a number of ways.[8] Yet as a merchant himself, Belshazzar likely grasped hints of the writing’s meaning. Daniel, however, is sure to make the message crystal-clear:

 

This is the interpretation of the message: ‘MENĒ’—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it.  ‘TEKĒL’—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient.  ‘PERĒS’—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians. (5:25-28)

 

Doukhan explain for the twenty-first century reader the usage of the terms thus:

 

Mene derives from a root that means ‘to count,’ ‘to assign,’ ‘to determine.’ … This word occurs in the Bible only in relation to the Creator, who controls and determines the flow of history. …The divine message compares Belshazzar to merchandise that is ‘determined,’ that is, to be liquidated… Yekel comes from a root meaning ‘to weigh,’ another image pertaining to the commercial world. Belshazzar is here ‘weighed on the scales.’ … And like a common piece of merchandise, his weight has been ‘found wanting.’ … In other words, he is a fraud. We are in a juridical context, as the weighing and the scales infer. … Upharsin derives from a root meaning ‘to break up,’ ‘to shatter.’ The word occurs often in the Bible in a context of violence. … In Hebrew, the white-tailed eagle, a bird of prey, is peres (Deut. 1 4: 1 2) because it tears everything apart (prs). The divine message compares Belshazzar to merchandise that falls prey to foreigners and gets torn into pieces. It is something already hinted at in the plural form of the word upharsin, the only plural of the inscription, implying simultaneously a plurality of predators, the Medes and the Persians. Already the sound of the word prs alludes to the Persians. Belshazzar knows now that his kingdom has come to an end.”[9]

 

The four words of the inscription also recalls the four metals representing four kingdoms represented in Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. The dream foretold events certain to occur, and the fulfillment began that very night as Darius the Mede[10] occupied Babylon and killed Belshazzar. After mistreating Daniel despite of his long service at the court, his offer of riches and honor came too late, and ironically, on the wings of his own doom.

 

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Despite Belshazzar’s death, though, this conquest is known as one of the most peaceful transitions of power in history. Just how Babylon, defended by two strong walls, could be occupied so easily is still a mystery. It has been speculated, based on the writings of Herodotus and Xenophon, as well as Isa. 44:27; Rev. 16:12, that the Medo-Persian army would have dried out the Euphrates in order to enter the city on the riverbed. Stefanovic argues that since the Euphrates would have already been at its lowest, the diverting would not have been necessary. He also suggests that Daniel’s speech might have made a strong impact and eased the victory of the Medo-Persians to whom Babylonian soldiers simply opened the gates. God certainly appears to be at work here (Isa. 45:1), but how exactly providence worked is not very easy to pan out. Regardless of the specifics, a large number of casualties have been spared in this conquest. The king, however, received the deserved punishment. [11]

 

When Light is Rejected 

It is worth noting two of the props in this narrative: the lampstand, and the writing on the plaster of the wall[12]. The lampstand is mentioned in reference to the location of the writing: “a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace” (5:5). While part of the reason may be simply to indicate the visibility of the writing, the temple language recalls the structure of God’s House in Jerusalem[13] where the lampstand was opposite the table of showbread (Exodus 40:22-25). On this table were golden vessels “plates and dishes for incense, and bowls and flagons with which to pour drink offerings,” (37:16). Some of the temple vessels Belshazzar asked for and from which he, his noblemen, his wives, and concubines drank wine, used to be located in the temple opposite the lampstand to hold symbols of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: Daniel’s Life of Temperance

 

Thus, God’s writing mirrored the location of the showbread in reference to the lampstand[14]. As a man with easy access to the knowledge of God not only from Nebuchadnezzar’s experience, but from the prominent Jewish presence at the court, he chose to discard the light received, and openly despise the living God instead. Had he received the light he had, Belshazzar could have partaken of the Bread of Life and secure his eternal destiny. But this is now beyond his possibility as he chose to build a wall between him and God. In a powerful, ironic, and immediate manifestation of justice, God, who holds Belshazzar’s breath in his hand (verse 23) flips it outside down and pours his breath out as His fingers write his death sentence.

 

Secrets of Success: Deferred Justice

For most of his life, Daniel held a high position in Babylon, except during the reign of Belshazzar when he was neglected and forgotten, regarded as an exiled Jew and no more. The king’s hatred of the living God was reflected in how he treated God’s devotees. But time, in the hands of Providence, has a way of revealing truth and bringing justice. Mistreated and dismissed, Daniel left this justice to God.[15] When established powers belittle us, deride us, and mock the God we serve, the outcome of this story can patch our broken trust.

 

In patience and faith is the reward of God’s children when active involvement is imprudent or impossible. In renewed devotion to God and revision of His guiding is our hope and our light when service is rewarded with neglect. In learning how not to be is the value of passively beholding poor leadership. In the end, evil disintegrates under the judgment of God, even if judgment seems to delay. Meanwhile, facing the future with trust is only as possible as our present and ever-growing past is soaked in His presence and leading.

Read the rest of Adelina’s series on the book of Daniel.

______

Notes.

[1] Zdravko Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2007), 177.

[2] Belshazzar disregards the custom of men and women eating separately. See Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 183.

[3] Jacques Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 78.

[4] Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, 78.

[5] Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, 79.

[6] See also Gen. 2: 7, Ps. 1 1 9:73, Isa. 41 :20, Job 1 2:9, 10; 34: 14, 15; Ps. 104:28-30) Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, 81.

[7] Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, 83.

[8] Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 198.

[9] Doukhan, Secrets of Daniel, 83-84.

[10] Historical records are not clear on the identity of Darius, but there is some evidence that he may have been Gobryas, the general who led the Medo-Persian army into victory over Babylon. Biblical evidence points towards Darius possibly being the same person as Cyrus the Great, “who may have been known by two titles due to his dual (Medo-Persian) parentage (Dan. 6:28).” See Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 203.

[11] See Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 202.

[12] “The Aramaic word gird’, ‘plaster,’ occurs only here in the whole Bible, but a related Hebrew word is usually translated ‘lime,’ which was used in making plaster. The writing probably took place on the part of the wall not covered with blue enameled brick.” Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 184.

[13] 1 Kings 7.

[14] The lampstand at the Babylonian court might have also been brought from the temple at Jerusalem.

[15] Stefanovic, Daniel: Wisdom to the Wise, 204.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.