The Writing on the Wall | Daniel 5

King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand.

Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the golden vessels that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.

The queen, because of the words of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall, and the queen declared, “O king, live forever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your color change. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.”

Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king answered and said to Daniel, “You are that Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah. I have heard of you that the spirit of the gods is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you. Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and make known to me its interpretation, but they could not show the interpretation of the matter. But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you can read the writing and make known to me its interpretation, you shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around your neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.”

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.”

Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made about him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.

That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.

Daniel 5 ESV

As I noted back in chapter 2, the Aramaic section of Daniel (chapters 2-7) form a large chiasm of events with chapters 2 and 7 paralleling as well as chapters 3 and 6, centering around 4 and 5. Thus, with chapter 5, we officially enter the back half of the chiasm and find this passage to be quite similar to the events of chapter 4. Indeed, pride is the central theme of both chapters, alongside God’s sovereign ability to humble even proud kings. We will, however, notice many distinctions between these two narratives. The humbling of Nebuchadnezzar marvelously resulted in the Babylonian king’s repentance before the LORD; Belshazzar, on the other hand, find no repentance, only destruction. Both stories poignantly warn against the danger of pride, but just as Nebuchadnezzar’s submission to God reminds us of the wondrous grace of repentance, Belshazzar’s death reminds us of sin’s inevitable end.

BELSHAZZAR’S PRIDE & TERROR // VERSES 1-12

Our chapter begins with a startling shift, King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of them (v. 1). The most significant question this verse raises is who exactly is Belshazzar?

The book of Daniel, as we have seen, is not interested in telling us about the ordinary days of Daniel while he lived out his life of exile; instead, each chapter jumps to a particular and spectacular moment of Daniel’s life. As we said, the previous chapter likely occurred shortly after Nebuchadnezzar’s third and final conquest of Jerusalem in which he utterly destroyed the city and temple. This would put Daniel in chapter 4 as likely being in his mid-forties, and since chapter 2 took place shortly after Daniel’s reeducation program, more than two decades of Daniel’s life were passed over. Likewise, here in chapter 5, the narrative jumps again past the death of Nebuchadnezzar, past the two-year reign of his son Evil-merodach, the six-year reign of his son-in-law Neriglissar, the less-than-a-year reign of Neriglissar’s son Labashi-Marduk, and at the very end of the nearly twenty-year reign of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. Indeed, since the events of this chapter can be traced to 539 BC, Daniel would have been somewhere in his seventies or perhaps early eighties.

But back to our original question, who is Belshazzar? As I said, Nabonidus (another son-in-law of Nebuchadnezzar) appears to be the final king of the Babylonian Empire, and until the mid-1800s no extrabiblical evidence of Belshazzar’s existence had been found. We now know, however, that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, and that Nabonidus made Belshazzar his coregent before he left for Arabia in 550 BC.[1] Thus, Belshazzar was not the sole king of Babylon, as Nebuchadnezzar was, but he was rightly called King Belshazzar.

The narrative thus begins with Belshazzar throwing an extravagant party for one thousand of his lords. We are then told that after he tasted the wine he brought in the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar his father[2] had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem… that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them (v. 2). His drunken stupor apparently decided that drinking from the holy vessels of God’s holy temple would be a display of his grandeur and might. Verse 3 informs us that they all did as Belshazzar desired, but verse 4 adds another depth to this outrage: they drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone. Belshazzar’s desecration of holy things was coupled with the king’s blatant idolatry. Indeed, praising gods of gold and silver was a horrendous affront to the holiness of the vessels, for the vessels of the temple were only holy because they reserved exclusively for serving the LORD in His temple. Yet Belshazzar and his company were essentially worshiping the gold and silver themselves.

The LORD’s response to this desecration was immediate:

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstand. And the king saw the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king called loudly to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. The king declared to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing, and shows me its interpretation, shall be clothed with purple and have a chain of gold around his neck and shall be the third ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.

Here the book of Daniel takes a turn into the horror genre with a disembodied hand scraping an unknown message into the plaster of the wall. The descriptions of Belshazzar are understandable since few in his place would not have the color drained from them at such a paranormal sight. Like Nebuchadnezzar with his dreams, Belshazzar summons his wise men and offers a large reward to whomever can read what the hand had written. His promise to make the interpreter the third ruler of the kingdom was likely a reference he and his father reigning as co-kings. Of course, as we should expect by now, the wisdom of the Babylonian wise men falls short when actual wisdom is needed, and with their failure, the king is even more alarmed.

Hope, however, arrives whenever the queen[3] comes into the banquet hall with a word of advice for the frightened king:

O king, live forever! Let not your thoughts alarm you or your color change. There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation.

Whether Daniel was still the chief of the wise men under Belshazzar’s reign cannot be deciphered from these verses, yet we can see that evidently the king was not aware of Daniel nor of his ability to interpret dreams. This sheds a little more light for us onto the character of Belshazzar. He was a foolish king who has neglected the past in order to live lavishly in the present. Someone once said that history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. All who refuse to tune their ear to God’s poetic providence throughout the ages rob themselves of wisdom for the present.

We should also note that Daniel’s Babylonian name is only brought up once. Clearly the aging Daniel had preserved his Jewish heritage and identity while in Babylon and even among the Babylonians.

WEIGHED & FOUND WANTING // VERSES 13-31

Daniel was brought before the king, and notice that the king did not speak to Daniel in relation to his interpretations before King Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, Belshazzar referred to him as one of the exiles of Judah, whom the king my father brought from Judah (v. 13). This was a not-so-subtle reminder to Daniel that he was a foreigner, that he did not belong in Babylon but was only there by force. The king’s smugness toward Daniel only continued with his felt skepticism in the statement, I have heard of you… (v. 14). Finally, he presents the rewards for interpreting the dream to the man of God.

Daniel’s response to the king in verses 17-28 is a lengthy one and certainly feels different from how Daniel addressed Nebuchadnezzar. The tone of Daniel’s speech contains no disrespect to Belshazzar’s authority as king; however, we can clearly sense that Daniel views Belshazzar as a lesser king. He began by bluntly telling the king that he had no desire for any of the rewards or honor that the king was offering. The prophet then proceeded to give Belshazzar the history lesson that he desperately needed.

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.

Here Daniel presented Nebuchadnezzar as both a warning and an example to follow. Nebuchadnezzar exalted himself in pride, but God brought him low through humiliating him into the likeness of a beast. However, Nebuchadnezzar did indeed come to know that the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will (v. 21). Belshazzar, however, had not heeded this example of God’s might. Indeed, Daniel doubly charged the king for not humbling his heart and for lifting himself against the Lord of heaven. His sin was greater than Nebuchadnezzar’s sin because Belshazzar had a great revelation. He knew that the Most High had humbled his mighty grandfather, yet Belshazzar chose to be even more blatantly rebellious than Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel emphasized this point further to the king by describing the folly of his particular sin:

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.

From here Daniel matter-of-factly interprets the writing upon the wall, which are a series of words for different weights that each decrease in size,

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.”

The chapter concludes so quickly that it sort of leaves us feeling uneasy, kind of like how quick Eve’s eating of the fruit is described in comparison to the build up of the act. Belshazzar gives the rewards to Daniel anyway, but that very night the king was killed with Darius the Mede then becoming the ruler. As E. J. Young notes, this simple description matches well the sudden fall of the Babylonian Empire into the hands of the Medo-Persian Empire. While Belshazzar feasted, the Persians were diverting the Euphrates River so that they could sneak into the Babylon through the water gate. Upon their entrance, the city surrendered, and no battle was fought.[4] Belshazzar was executed by the new and mighty kingdom. Duguid offers this concluding thought:

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. Or, picking up other biblical echoes, the New Babel ended its days under the judgment of God, under a curse of incomprehensible speech and divinely imposed division, just like the first Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.[5]

THE DESTRUCTION OF THE PROUD

To have already died, Nebuchadnezzar still looms large over this chapter. Belshazzar’s pride was grounded in mighty deeds that his grandfather had done, but the final king of Babylon had done nothing himself. The pride of Nebuchadnezzar was sinful but not necessarily empty (remember that Daniel rightly called him the king of kings); Belshazzar’s pride appears to be more rampant and reckless, while also being very empty. He did none of the great deeds that his grandfather did; he only inherited the kingdom. Even still, his pride seems to have been even greater than that of Nebuchadnezzar. Indeed, Belshazzar’s minuscule presence in archeology may indicate just how unimportant he truly was. He believed himself to be greater than the Most High, yet he was so scarcely mentioned that secular historians once argued that he did not even exist.

Belshazzar’s end is also a warning all who read it that those who refuse to repent of pride will not only die but also face the second death. As we said last week, pride is not limited to monarchs or heads of government. Pride is the foundational sin from which all others sin flows, and everyone is guilty. Like Adam and Eve eating fruit and thinking themselves to be God’s equals, nothing is too small for us leverage into cosmic rebellion. We can even turn the grace of salvation into a source of spiritual pride by subtly believing that we were more worthy of the Christ’s sacrifice than those who do not believe. Although perhaps more common to Christians is the pride that follows closely upon the heels of obedience. After following the commands of Jesus, we should not take pride in our actions but rather say, “we are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). Unfortunately, that is not our default condition. Thankfully, even in our continuous battle against pride, we can come to Christ in repentance over and over again, finding forgiveness through His atoning death. And as we continue to humble ourselves before our Lord, trusting in His saving work rather than our own, we can also trust that He will bring our salvation to its completion.

Yet all who refuse the forgiveness that Christ offers will meet a judgment far worse than execution at the hands of the Persians. Hebrews 10:28-31 gives warning that can easily be applied to our present text:

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

The swiftness of Belshazzar’s judgment came because he refused to learn from the humiliation of Nebuchadnezzar before him. Belshazzar had a greater revelation, so his rejection warranted a greater judgment. Brothers and sisters, we have the greatest revelation that God can give, His own Son. We do not look back to Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation but to Christ’s in our place. Refusing His extended hand of salvation more than merits the fires of hell. The Eternal One Himself came to rescue us from our eternal sentence for sin and to refuse Him is to heap sin atop of sin. Rightly then does Hebrews 12:25 counsel us, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”

Just as Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation pointed us toward the greater humiliation of Christ, so too should Belshazzar’s failure to repent of his pride lead us to fall all the more in repentance at the feet of Christ. The warnings of Scripture are frightening for good reason: “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” However, we should take joy in knowing that the difficulty of salvation comes precisely from the forsaking of our pride in order to cling fully and humbly onto the work of Christ. Relying solely upon faith in Jesus to save is all that is required of us. Today is the day of humble repentance before the Lord, for like Belshazzar we are not guaranteed tomorrow.


[1] There was evidently some sort of uprising, and Nabonidus fell out of favor with the people and thus left for Arabia, essentially leaving his son in charge of the kingdom.

[2] The word used for father was not always used literally but rather to connect lineage. Indeed, since Nebuchadnezzar was the great king of the Babylonian Empire would be natural for Belshazzar to be linked to his grandfather that way.

[3] Many commentators have noted that since Belshazzar’s wives were with him at the feast, this queen was likely Nebuchadnezzar’s widow.

[4] Some historians believe that news of the Persian King Cyrus’ exploits caused the people of Babylon to desire his kingship more than their own kings, which could help explain their quick surrender.

[5] Iain Duguid, Daniel, 83-84.

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