Message 5 | Daniel 5:1-31 | December 3, 2017

Introduction

One of the most interesting stories in the Bible is that described in Daniel 5 – Belshazzar’s feast. Let’s take a moment to paint the scene and then, following, we will look a little deeper at some of the details. Belshazzar was not the supreme king of Babylon. Nabonidus, his father, was king. Belshazzar was second ruler in the kingdom. Nabonidus, over the course of his rule, had distanced himself from Babylon and had also experienced quite a bit of defeat. In the vacuum of leadership, Belshazzar had found a certain level of control, and likely had more recently taken full control of the city of Babylon.

Puffed up by the pride of his newly-gotten power, Belshazzar makes a great banquet. The palace is a blaze of light. The long tables are set for more than a thousand guests. They are brilliant and dazzling with plates and cups and tankards of silver and gold, many-jewelled, reflecting back the light from countless candelabra. Reclining at the tables are the guests, with fingers and arms ringed and jewelled. The air is heavy with perfume and tremulous with the music of harp and dulcimer and sackbut. Between the tables the oriental women weave through the contortions and distortions of the Asiatic dance.[1]

At some point in the midst of this electrifying event, Belshazzar directs his chief steward to bring in the vessels that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem. “Belshazzar commands that the cups be filled with Babylonian wine, and passed from lip to lip—while he and his guests sing the praises of the gods of gold and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.”

All of a sudden, in the midst of all the joviality, there appears the fingers of a man writing on the wall. All eyes are turned to this mysterious message. “Suddenly a hush like death falls upon the banqueting hall. . . . Terror freezes Belshazzar to the very soul.” “Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together” (Dan 5:6 ESV).  Belshazzar pulls himself together and “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” (Dan 5:7 ESV).

At the point of this chapter, Daniel had been in Babylon for about 60 years and is around 80 years old.  About 25 years have passed since chapter 4, fifty since chapter 3. Belshazzar is the co-regent of Babylon, along with His father, Nabonidus. The Medo-Persian army is outside of Babylon. Belshazzar and his thousands of guest are partying.

As we study this chapter we will find many truths.  Let’s remember throughout this study that without the work of God in our lives we would act just like the two kings of Babylon spoken of in Daniel.  We are of course not as powerful as these men and have less with which to be proud.  With that in mind, we should be all the more humble with the little that we have.  If God can humble the most powerful men in the world, how much more those of us of “little consequence”?

Background Information

Nebuchadnezzar (605-562)

Amel-Marduk (562-560) Son of Nebuchadnezzar, Executed by Neriglissar

Neriglissa (560-556) Son in law of Nebuchadnezzar

Labashi-Marduk (Few months) Son of Neri. & grandson of Neb., Executed by Nabonidus’ officers

Nabonidus (556-539) Babylonian noble who married Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter. In 553 he conquered and began to repair Tema, an oasis in the Arabian desert. He was probably in this area and away from Babylon for nearly 14 years of his 17 year reign. It appears that he did not worship the gods of Babylon but instead his own gods. This provided a number of problems with the people in Babylon and their feasts and festivals that required the king present. In his absence he left Belshazzar to rule in Babylon as coregent. He returned to Babylon in the spring of 539 just before Babylon’s fall

Belshazzar (?549-539) Son of Nabo & grandson of Neb, Co-reigned with Nabonidus

The Handwriting Explained

The inability of the wise men. Once again we see the inability of the wise men to accomplish the task of interpretation. Even though Belshazzar offers ruling power to the one who interprets, no one is able.

The queen reminds Belshazzar of Daniel.  This queen is probably Amytis, the widow of Nebuchadnezzar.  It is possible that this queen was Nitocris, Nabonidus’ wife and Belshazzar’s mother, but it is more likely that she would have been with Nabonidus and not at this event.

Daniel is summoned to this feast.  It is likely that Belshazzar was aware of Daniel, but had disregarded him over the last 20 or so years.  This is probably due to a number of factors, but it is possible that Daniel was viewed as a rival due to the power that he had in the past and the potential of him having held the throne for Nebuchadnezzar during his insanity.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. Mene: God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. Repetition shows emphasis. Tekel:  You have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. Peres:  Your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.

The Handwriting Fulfilled

Daniel tells us, “that very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old” (Dan 5:30-31). While Belshazzar was slain that same night, it appears that no one else died in this defeat.  According to ancient historians the city was taken without firing a shot and the only recorded casualty was Belshazzar.

According to historians Cyrus planned the siege of Babylon for some length of time. Cyrus began a campaign of propaganda in 547 BC in which he told people “Marduk has called me to Babylon.” The following quote speaks of Marduk guiding Cyrus to defeat Babylon because of Nabonidus’ insults to Marduk.

“He (Nabonidus) interrupted in a fiendish way the regular offerings . . . he established within the sacred cities.  The worship of Marduk, the king of the gods, he changed into abomination, daily he used to do evil against his city . . . He tormented its inhabitants with corvee-work without relief, he ruined them all.

Upon their complaints the lord of the gods became terribly angry . . . Marduk . . .  scanned and looked through all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler willing to lead him (Marduk) in the annual procession.  He pronounced the name of Cyrus, king of Anshan, declared him to be the ruler of the world . . . ordered him to march against his city Babylon . . .  going at his side like a real friend.” [2]

For nearly 14 years Nabonidus had neglected the yearly festivals in honor of Marduk. It was only at the very end that Nabonidus returned to Babylon and participated in the events. He as well gathered all the gods from the surrounding towns into Babylon so as to provide more strength and protection for Babylon.

In September, Ugbaru (who was Nebuchadnezzar’s general and died three weeks after Babylon’s defeat) defeated Nabonidus’ army at Opis. In October the Medo-Persian army conquered Sippar. Sippar was about 30 miles north of Babylon.  At this victory there was no battle at all and Nabonidus fled. It appears that, due to Nabonidus’ fleeing, Belshazzar assumed full control of Babylon, and likely the feast spoken of in this chapter is an inauguration feast for Belshazzar.

It was that day, October 12th, that Ugbaru and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon with no battle.  The reason that there was no battle seems to be that the priest of Marduk (in both Sippar and Babylon) opened the gates for the army and let them in. The priest of Marduk hated Nabonidus due his disrespect and disregard for Marduk and the feast and festivals. As well when Nabonidus took the gods from all the surrounding towns, none of those towns wanted to fight without their god.

Nabonidus returned to Babylon later and was arrested. According to an historian, Nabonidus was arrested and exiled to Cormania which is modern Afghanistan.

Many have wondered why Belshazzar was feasting if the attack on Babylon was so apparent. (1) He had a false sense of security in the fortification of Babylon. (2) He possessed a naïve confidence due to the fact that he was surrounded by all the gods in the area. (3) There is evidence that Babylon possessed 20+ years of food supplies. (4) As stated in the passage, he was arrogant.

Conclusion

God’s sovereignty demands humility.

So then, what do we do with this story and this comparison. Our conclusion could most definitely be the same as last week. God once again humbles a king and displays that he is truly in power. He places whomever he desires, wherever he desires, whenever he desires. We ought to both be humbled by this reality but as well find great confidence and comfort in the fact that our God is in control.

God’s sovereignty involves judgment.

Consider the statement, “you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Dan 5:27 ESV). The result of Belshazzar’s being weighed was his immediate destruction. It is a fearful place to stand – being weighed by God. Any one of us, if we were to be weighed in the balances of God’s law, would find ourselves severely wanting. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23 ESV). The consequences for our failure to meet up to God’s judgment is similar to that of Belshazzar. When we are weighed against God’s law, we are found wanting, and we deserve immediate judgment. It is a good thing, for any man, to pause for a moment and consider the results of being weighed in the scale of God’s law. We are told that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matt 22:37). How might we do if we were weighed against just that one law – set aside our failure to meet up to all the others? Is it not true that each one of us, with any ability towards objective self-analysis, can conclude that we have fallen far short of what God requires?

And yet, as believers, when we are weighed, we are not weighed in accordance with our adherence to the law, but instead we place on the scales, the perfect righteousness of Christ.

I bring with me the full atonement, the perfect satisfaction of Jesus’ blood, and the perfect righteousness of a divine being, the spotless righteousness of Jesus the Son of God. I can be weighed against the law, and yet sit securely, knowing that now and for ever, I am equal to the law. It hath nought against me since Christ is mine. [3]

God’s sovereignty is self-determining.

Let me draw your attention to one additional aspect of God’s sovereignty, ironically, a similar characteristic of which Daniel points out about Nebuchadnezzar’s sovereignty as the ruler of Babylon. Daniel writes concerning Nebuchadnezzar’s rule and authority:

O king, the Most High God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father kingship and greatness and glory and majesty. 19 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. (Daniel 5:18–19 ESV).

I find it interesting that Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar’s rule in this way, “whom he would, he raised up, and whom he would, he humbled.” It is that phrase that I want to dwell on for a moment. Nebuchadnezzar raised up “whom he would, and whom he would he humbled.” What we find in the comparison between Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar is the same reality. God chose to immediately humble and destroy Belshazzar and yet he had chosen to extend times of grace and multiple opportunities for repentance to Nebuchadnezzar.

Similarities between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. (1) They were both judged for their pride (Neb: 3, 4:30 and Bel: 5:22-23). (2) They both blasphemed God. Nebuchadnezzar said in chapter 3, “what god can deliver you from my hands?” Belshazzar blasphemed God by using the temple vessels to party and worship his gods. (3) Both of them were idolatrous. Nebuchadnezzar built a 90 foot image and demanded everyone to bow down to it at the threat of being burned alive in a burning fiery furnace (Dan 3). Belshazzar was idolatrous in that “they drank and praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Dan 5:4).

Differences between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar.  (1) Nebuchadnezzar’s pride results in temporal judgment. Belshazzar’s pride results in his immediate death. (2) Nebuchadnezzar honored the God of the Jews on a number of occasions (probably even coming to believe in Him). Belshazzar blasphemes God in a more direct way when he took the temple vessels and used them for common use. (3) Nebuchadnezzar is given an opportunity to repent. It appears that Belshazzar is not given an opportunity to repent. (4) Daniel treats Nebuchadnezzar with respect even prior to his praise of God. Daniel is short with Belshazzar and offers him no hope. (5)  Nebuchadnezzar seems to respond to God’s communication. Belshazzar seems to belittle God’s communication and communicator – Daniel.

The primary distinction between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar is that God sovereignly chose to offer Nebuchadnezzar a chance and sovereignly decided to not offer Belshazzar a chance to repent.  There was nothing in either of them that warranted God’s patience with them. God could have chosen to extend a period of time for Belshazzar to repent. He allowed Nebuchadnezzar to have 3 dramatic displays of his power. He could have given Belshazzar more opportunities. Neither of them deserved his grace. Neither of them deserved any opportunity to repent, and yet God’s work was quite different in each of their lives. God humbles whom he will, and he raises up whom he will. This is the similar concept we find in Romans where Paul writes concerning God’s sovereignty.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— (Romans 9:14–23 ESV).

How might we attempt to understand this? Simply put. God is sovereign and he can do whatever he wants. We, as vessels of clay, don’t have the right to question the potter. He does it because, as Romans 9 states, there are vessels of wrath prepared for destruction and there are vessels of mercy prepared for glory – all of this to display his power and mercy.

Implications to you. In God’s sovereignty he has chosen to give you what you have and make you what you are. Why did He choose to use you and not someone else? No one can answer that—your primary response should be that of gratitude for His grace.

Should you fear the same judgment that came upon Belshazzar? Not if you are a believer. While it is true that God would find us lacking if He based our merit on our own worth; He  instead sees the worth of Christ on us covering us, and it is Christ’s worth which allows us to be found acceptable to God.

 

 

[1] R. A. Torrey, Revival Addresses (Chicago; New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1903), 30–32.

[2] James B. Pritchard. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 315. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400882762.

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, “The Scales of Judgment,” in The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, vol. 5 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1859), 259.

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