Governments come and go, leaders rise and fall. Sometimes all that happens overnight. Four years ago, we were on a bus in Germany, as part of a Reformation study tour, when some one, can’t remember who’d been willing to pay for global roaming, broke the news that we had a new Prime Minister! Kevin Rudd had been replaced by Julia Gillard. Overnight, almost without warning the government, and the leader, changed.
We get that feeling when we get to Daniel chapter 5. Chapters 1-4 have been all about King Nebuchadnezzar. He’s conquered Jerusalem, brought Daniel and his friends back to Babylon. He’s had some weird dreams, which Daniel’s interpreted, he’s built statutes, seen God at work, he’s been humbled by God. Chapter 4 ends with these words:
37Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,
for all his works are truth,
and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
those who walk in pride.
It’s a pretty high note. But then we get to chapter 5, and all of a sudden, without warning, Nebuchadnezzar’s gone. Instead we read of King Belshazzar. What’s happened? What’s going on?
The reality is it wasn’t an overnight change. Belshazzar didn’t even directly succeed Nebuchadnezzar as King. It looks like it in the chapter because Nebcudnezzar is referred to as Belshazzar’s father, but the word can actually mean predecessor or ancestor, and from history it’s clearly meant in that way. There was a period of instability after Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, a bit of political infighting. Few replacements that made Kevin Rudd’s sacking look quite friendly. Eventually someone called Nabonidus takes the throne, but he ends up spending most of his time in a kind of exile in the North Arabian Desert. So his son Belshazzar effectively takes the throne in Babylon.
Which helps explain why Belshazzar’s throwing a huge feast in verse 1. Why he’s inviting a thousand of his lords and ladies to party with him. Belshazzar hadn’t taken the throne by might or power, he wasn’t even King in his own right. So he needs to shore up his authority any way he can. He’s winning and dinning all the elite in Babylon. He’s buying respect and support with food, wine and entertainment. But rather than conducting himself like a true monarch, like a respectable ruler, Belshazzar’s in the midst of everything, leading the drinking and debauchery. It’s under the influence of the wine, that Belshazzar has what must’ve seemed like a brilliant idea. What do you do if you’re having a party and really want to impress people? You bust out the good silver. The sterling knives and forks that for 364 days of the year live in a box on top of your cupboard, but on that one day you pull out in order to impress. That’s what Belshazzar does. He orders his servants to fetch the vessels of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem. Do you remember those from back in chapter 1? Nebuchadnezzar took the vessels and placed them in the ‘treasury of his gods’. Well, Belshazzar orders that the vessels be brought out, in order to use them as a wine glass. He’s mocking Nebuchadnezzar. By his actions he’s claiming he’s greater than his predecessor, who at least treated these objects with respect. But that’s not only who Belshazzar is mocking. His actions he’s claiming that he’s greater that God. He’s saying God has no power, no might. He’s claiming to be greater than God. Imagine how you’d feel if I took the chalice from here, took it home and used it as a wine glass at dinner? Of if I took it away on the CLAY camp to use as a cordial cup?
If that wasn’t bad enough Belshazzar, and his lords and ladies, then add insult to injury. Not only do they drink from the vessels, from the house of God, but they then praise the gods of gold and silver, of wood, iron, bronze and stone. They begin praising dead objects, they’re in effect claiming that God is deader than dead wood. We see from what Daniel says in verse 23 that they’re lifting themselves up against heaven. It’s really a challenge to God. Belshazzar is claiming to be greater than God! We’re meant to sit up and gasp! What will God do? Will he allow this to happen? The answer comes back pretty quickly. Immediately, the fingers of a human hand appear and begin writing a message to Belshazzar.
It’s hard to imagine exactly what this looked like. The passage just says fingers of human hand. Can’t help but imagine what it wrote with, did it scratch the message in the plaster, or scrawl it in paint? How big was the writing, what did it look like? Probably not like the few paintings that have been done. What is clear is that the message was clear! Verse 5 says that the fingers wrote in the plaster next to the lampstand. It’s in a well lit area. It’s not a private message, but a public one. It’s there for all to see. But it’s a message directed primarily at one person. That’s King Belshazzar. Verse 5 says he sees, he’s watching as this hand appears and begins writing. He sees the message and he knows it’s an ominous sign. In fact, Belshazzar’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs give way and his knees knocked together. It’s funny but all the modern translations put it something like his limbs gave way. But there’s another way of translating it, which the old KJV gets close to, ‘so that the joints of his loins were loosed’ (the NET puts it ‘the joints of his hips gave way’). The passage can read, his loins became unknotted. Let the reader understand. (There’s a hint that what happened was he lost control of his bladder, he wet himself). What makes the situation worse is that while it’s a public message, no one can read it!
The Chaldeans, the wise men, the diviners and the enchanters are brought it, but they can’t interpret it, just as they couldn’t interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams in chapters 2 & 4. You can imagine what they’re work reviews looked like. ‘Tries hard, gets most of work done but struggles with key performance criteria.’ You’ve got to wonder why they’re kept around! The gods of gold and silver are mute are their representatives! Even the promise of new clothes, a bit of bling and a promotion can’t help. They’re stumped and that only makes Belshazzar more terrified. How would it feel if you received what’s clearly an important message but couldn’t understand it? (Illustration of Chinese email, or wet mail)
Well, where do you turn when you get stuck in life, when no one else can answer your questions? Mum of course! It’s just then that the queen-mother walks in. (Given Belshazzar’s partying with his lords and their wives and concubines, it’s pretty likely his wife was there, so the phrase is better interpreted queen-mother). In walks Mum and she can see little Belsshie’s in trouble and she’s ready to ride to the rescue. She reminds him that there’s someone who does know how to do their job:
10The queen, when she heard the discussion of the king and his lords, came into the banqueting hall. The queen said, “O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts terrify you or your face grow pale. 11There is a man in your kingdom who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father he was found to have enlightenment, understanding, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners, 12because 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 give the interpretation.”
We’re not told why Daniel wasn’t at the feast. By this stage he was advanced in years, so maybe he went to bed early! Maybe he’d gone into retirement, even though he was clearly still needed (pity Chris isn’t here to hear that line!). It’s more likely thought that with all the change in rulers, he’s been relegated to a minor role, he’s been demoted and put in a back office somewhere. You can see that in the way Belshazzar speaks of Daniel. There’s a real disdain and skepticism in what Belshazzar says, and it’s no wonder. He’s mocked God, so of course he’s going to mock Daniel and doubt his ability.
13“So you are Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? 14I have heard of you that a spirit of the gods is in you, and that enlightenment, understanding, and excellent wisdom are found in you.
16Now if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation
Did you see how he keeps saying, I have heard, I have hard, if you are able!’? And he treats Daniel as though he were an outsider, an exile, an illegal entrant, even though Daniel’s probably lived in Babylon longer than Belshazzar!
Despite how he treats him, it’s only Daniel who can help! The King’s only hope is not Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Daniel, a Jewish loser. Just as it’s only in a loser, a crucified Jew named Jesus that we can find help and salvation.
At least he makes him the same offer of a purple robe, gold chain and to be ranked third in the kingdom. That might seem like a bit of a weak offer, but remember Belshazzar’s not really King in his own right. He’s really the second in command, so third in the kingdom is as good an offer as he can make!
How did Daniel respond to the King’s offer? He rejects it out of hand! Just as he didn’t want a part of the King’s table in chapter 1, just as he didn’t show up at the King’s idolatrous feast at the start of chapter 5, he wants no part of Belshazzar’s trinkets or tokens. Instead Daniel confronts the King with a righteous anger,
17‘“Let your gifts be for yourself, or give your rewards to someone else! Nevertheless I will read the writing to the king and let him know the interpretation.”’
It’s interesting to notice the contrast between here and the way Daniel spoke back in chapter 4. If you can recall from last week, when Daniel was asked to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream he said: ‘“My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you, and its interpretation for your enemies!”’ (Dan. 3:19). You get the sense that Daniel developed something of a warm affection for Nebuchadnezzar. But that’s not the case with Belshazzar! Daniel might be able to forgive the way Belshazzar has spoken to him, but he can’t abide how Belshazzar has treated God! He doesn’t hold back at all.
But did you notice what Daniel did next? He didn’t give the interpretation straight away. You get the sense that the moment Daniel saw the writing he knew what it meant. But instead of telling Belshazzar straight away Daniel launches into a history lesson. Daniel tells Belshazzar who’s really in charge, by reminding him of what we looked at last week. He recaps Daniel 4 and how God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar’s pride. The stinging accusation comes in verse 22:
22And you, Belshazzar his son, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this! 23You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven!
Belshazzar has acted foolishly, but he’s done more than make a drunken mistake. The words, you and your are used fourteen times in the passage coming like machine gun fire in a description of Belshazzar’s sinful foolishness. He’s failed to honour the God who holds his very life in his hands. Instead he’s exalted the gods of silver and bronze instead of the living God. And he’s exalted himself against God. Belshazzar’s guilty of pride, of sacrilidge and of idolatry. And now he must face the judgment.
Daniel turns to the words and reads them out clearly so that everyone can hear, Mene, Mene, Tekel and Parsin. The meaning of the words and their interpretation are simple:
26This is the interpretation of the matter:
MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end;
27TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting;
28PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
It’s so simple you can set it to music, as more than one person has done. (Play Clip!) I actually toyed with the idea of playing the whole song in place of the Bible reading this week, but one of the last things Chris did before he left on long service leave was to veto that idea!
It’s a clear, easy to understand message. And it’s one we long to hear. We long to know that wickedness will be judged. We want to know that God sees what people do and that he won’t let evil go unpunished.
This week Rolf Harris was found guilty and received his sentence. There’s so much interest in cases like these, and those of Oscar Pistorius, or any other celebrity or politician, because we want to see justice. We don’t want to think that anyone, no matter how famous, no matter how popular or powerful is above the law. Deep down we long for justice. I think it’s why this chapter is in a way more widely known than the rest of the book. Think about it. We tell the story of fiery furnace and Daniel in the lion’s den all the time in Sunday school and kids clubs. I’m sure if you asked most people in the community what’s in the Bible they might mention one of those stories. But the words of Daniel 5 have penetrated deeper into our everyday language.
Your number’s up
Your days are numbered
You’ve been weighed and found wanting
Maybe not so much your kingdom’s divided, but we do say;
The writing’s on the wall!
No one is powerful enough to escape God’s judgment. Belshazzar wasn’t. He fulfills his promises to Daniel and gives him a robe and a gold chain and promotes him, to show he’s indifferent to God’s threats. But that very night his sentence was executed, and so was he. Then Darius the Mede received his kingdom.
To those who question God’s presence, who doubt his righteousness and justice, when we ask ‘Will you let this go on O’ Lord?’ Daniel 5 gives us a clear answer. God is able to bring down the mightiest king in the world and to pass his kingdom on to another. God can, and will, judge evil Kings and nations. No one, no matter how powerful can escape God’s judgment.
Paul reminds us of the lesson that Belshazzar failed to learn and that we all need to heed. It’s both an encouragement and a warning:
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
But thanks be to God that through Christ we can have boldness on the day of judgment, just as we’re going to remember and celebrate in a little while in communion.