Commentary on Daniel 5

Last updated: February 1, 2010

English Translation (ESV)

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

2 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. 3 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. 4 They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.

5 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. 6 Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. 7 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.” 8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation. 9 Then King Belshazzar was greatly alarmed, and his color changed, and his lords were perplexed.

10 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. 11 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, 12 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.”

13 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. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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.”

17 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. 18 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. 20 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. 21 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. 22 And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, 23 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.

24 “Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. 25 And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. 26 This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; 28 Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

29 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.

30 That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed. 31 And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.

Notes

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

Belshazzar was once known only from the Book of Daniel and sources dependent on it. His name is not mentioned by Herodotus (4th century BC) or Xenephon (3rd century BC). For this reason, some scholars doubted his existence. In 1854, inscriptions were found on barrel-shaped cylinders at Tell Muqayyar (ancient Ur).1 There are now 37 archival texts from the first to the fourteenth year of Nabonidus’ reign that attest to Belshazzar’s historicity.2

Nonetheless, some scholars still doubt that the Book of Daniel provides an accurate depiction of the Belshazzar of history. First, the Book of Daniel claims that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar (vv 2, 11, 13, 18, 22) when, in fact, he was the son of Nabonidus. The Aramaic words for “son” and “father” can refer to “descendant” and “ancestor” respectively, but Nabonidus was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar (he took the throne through a coup) and there is no evidence that Belshazzar was descended from one of Nebuchadnezzar’s wives or married into the family, although these are possibilities.3 Stephen R. Miller notes that a biological relationship may not be in view. In the Black Obelisk of Shalmanesar III, Jehu is called the son of Omri even though Jehu was not a descendant of Omri. “Son” and “father” can be used in the sense of “successor” and “predecessor.”4

Second, the Book of Daniel refers to Belshazzar as “king” (vv 1, 9, 30). The Nabonidus Chronicle states that Nabonidus “entrusted the kingship” to Belshazzar when he went to Teima. It was obligatory for the king to be present for the akitu festival to be celebrated and the festival was not celebrated until Nabonidus returned to Babylon. Nabonidus returned to celebrate the akitu festival before the fall of the city to the Persians. John J. Collins takes this to mean that Belshazzar was not king in any sense when Babylon fell to the Persians.5 But this is not the only interpretation of the facts. John E. Goldingay notes that Belshazzar did fulfill the functions of kingship and that the reason he did not celebrate the akitu festival had more to do with the religious conflict between the Marduk priesthood and the Nabonidus regime than Belshazzar’s not technically being king.6 It is also worth noting that Belshazzar promises to make Daniel the third highest ruler in the kingdom (vv 7, 16, 29), which suggests that the author was aware of Nabonidus. Nabonidus need not be mentioned explicitly since he plays no role in this passage.

Both Herodotus (Histories 1.191) and Xenophon (Cyropaedia 7.5.15, 21. 25) attest that a banquet was in progress the night Babylon fell (October 12, 539 BC). They indicate that the Babylonians were observing a customary festival that happened to fall at this time. “A regular festival may have been celebrated in the usual manner in order to convey to the city’s inhabitants a sense of normalcy in spite of the chaotic conditions outside the walls.”7

2 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.

Profanation of cult vessels was an outrage among both Jews and pagans.8 Verses 22-24 indicate that this was a deliberate act of defiance against the God of Israel.

5 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.

In the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace archaeologists have uncovered a large throne room 56 feet wide and 173 feet long which probably was the scene of this banquet. Midway in the long wall opposite the entrance there was a niche in front of which the king may well have been seated. Interestingly, the wall behind the niche was covered with white plaster as described by Daniel, which would make an excellent background for such a writing.

If the scene can be reconstructed, it is probable that the banquet was illuminated by torches which not only produced smoke but fitful light that would only partially illuminate the great hall. As the writing according to Daniel was written “over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace,” it may have appeared in an area of greater illumination than the rest of the room and thus also have attracted more attention.9

6 Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.

That the “king’s color changed” probably means that he went pale.

7 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.”

Purple was the color of royalty.

8 Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or make known to the king the interpretation.

Exactly why the wise men could not read or understand the text is not stated. John E. Goldingay suggests that the story envisages the words written out as unpointed consonants: “being able to read out unpointed text is partly dependent on actually understanding it, and Daniel later reads the words out one way and interprets them another.”10

10 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.

In this context, the queen must refer to the queen-mother, either a wife of Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus. The wives of Belshazzar were already present (v 2).

17 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.

Daniel may have declined the gifts to make it clear that his interpretation could not be influenced by the king.

22 And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this,

How would Belshazzar have been aware of Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation? Certainly the story would have been known, but evidence exists that indicates Belshazzar may have seen these events firsthand. Belshazzar served as chief officer during the administration of King Neriglissar in 560 B.C. according to Babylonian historical texts. This means that the king was old enough to fill a high position in government only two years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death (562 B.C.). Since Nabonidus was an official in Nebuchadnezzar’s administration, Belshazzar would have lived in Babylon and would have observed personally the last years of the great king’s reign. Thus Daniel’s rebuke is even more understandable. Belshazzar had seen with his own eyes what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, and yet he had refused to humble himself before the Most High God.

This made Belshazzar’s blasphemy against Israel’s God even more inexcusable. Instead of glorifying Yahweh, he purposely defied him (“set yourself up against the Lord of heaven”) by desecrating his holy things in using them to praise his idols (v. 23). By committing this act of sacrilege, Belshazzar had actually issued a challenge to “the Lord of heaven.”11

25 And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.

Each word has several possible meanings. On the surface the words refer to three weights: a mina (500 or 600g), a shekel (10g), and a half (probably a half-shekel but possibly a half-mina). Daniel’s message plays on the verbal root of each word.12

28 Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

“Half” (Peres) receives a double interpretation. It plays on the verb “broken in half” and the noun “Persia.”13 Note that the author of Daniel did not believe there was a separate Median empire succeeded by a Persian empire.

29 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.

Daniel accepts the gifts now for they could no longer influence his interpretation.

30 That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed.

Daniel furnished little information about the actual fall of Babylon, but a number of historical sources supplement the biblical account. The Greek historians, Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) and Xenophon (ca. 434-355 B.C.), supply exceptionally helpful details in this regard. The walls surrounding the city of Babylon were formidable. In the previous chapter was the explanation that there were two sets of double walls extending for miles (the outermost system being seventeen miles in length). The outer walls were approximately twenty-five feet in width and rose to a height of at least forty feet. These fortifications were too difficult to challenge, and so according to Herodotus and Xenophon, the Medo-Persian army diverted water from the Euphrates River (which ran under the walls of Babylon) into a marsh. With the level of the water lowered, the soldiers were able to wade the river under the walls and enter the city.

Xenophon added that the city was invaded while the Babylonians were feasting in a time of drunken revelry, and Herodotus also related that a festival was in progress. As a matter of fact, Xenophon cited the festival as the reason the Persians chose to attack Babylon on that particular night. He further mentioned that Gobryas, commander under Cyrus, led his soldiers into the palace, where they found the king holding a dagger, evidently with which to take his own life. According to Xenophon, the king and his attendants were overpowered, and the invaders “avenged themselves upon the wicked king,” which obviously means that they executed him.

Two cuneiform documents provide additional information about the fall of Babylon – the Nabonidus Chronicle and the Cyrus Cylinder. The Nabonidus Chronicle tells of Cyrus’s invasion of Babylonia and the subsequent flight of Nabonidus after Sippar was taken on the fourteenth of Tishri (Oct. 10, 539 B.C.). On the sixteenth day of Tishri (Oct. 12, 539 B.C.), Cyrus’s commander (Gobryas, also known as Ugbaru) and the Medo-Persian army entered Babylon without a battle. Cyrus was welcomed by the city’s inhabitants when he arrived on the third day on the month Arahshamnu (Oct. 29, 539 B.C.). The Cyrus Cylinder also records that Babylon was captured without a battle and that the citizens received Cyrus warmly.

According to both the Nabonidus Chronicle and the Cyrus Cylinder, Nabonidus had been unfaithful to the gods of Babylon. He had stopped a rebellion in bloody fashion just a few years before Babylon’s fall, and his evil son Belshazzar probably was never very popular. Moreover, all the peoples who had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians received Cyrus with joy because he allowed them to return to their homelands (cf. Cyrus Cylinder and Ezra 1:1-4). Under these circumstances the peaceful transition to Persian rule indicated in the Book of Daniel is quite reasonable.

Finally, Berosus (a third-century B.C. Babylonian priest and historian) reported details of Cyrus’s attack on Babylonia and of his battle with Nabonidus, who was defeated and fled to Borsippa where he later surrendered. According to Berosus, Nabonidus was not executed but deported to Carmania by Cyrus.

Further Light on the Character of Belshazzar. The Book of Daniel indicates that Belshazzar was a blasphemer, and evidence from other sources seems to corroborate his evil character. Beaulieu suggests that the leader of the assassination plot against the previous Babylonian king, Labashi-Marduk, had been Belshazzar himself. He presents evidence showing that Belshazzar profited financially by the previous king’s death and even suggests that it was Belshazzar who proposed his old father Nabonidus to the conspirators as the new king, evidently reasoning that his father would soon die, and he would become the new ruler.

Xenophon related that one of Nabonidus’ governors, Gobryas (Ugbaru of the Nabonidus Chronicle), defected to Cyrus partly because the son of Nabonidus killed his only son in a fit of jealousy during a royal hunt. The unrepentant, murderous son of the king must have been Belshazzar. Thus Belshazzar was not only a blasphemer, an assassin (likely as a result of greed), but a murderer. It is interesting that according to Xenophon and the Nabonidus Chronicle, Gobryas led the Medo-Persian troops into the city and then into the palace the night Babylon fell. He and his soldiers overpowered the king of Babylon, Belshazzar, and put him to death. Thus Gobryas avenged his son’s murder. It is also noteworthy that Xenophon referred to the king in Babylon at the time of its fall [Belshazzar] as “the wicked king.”14

31 And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.

Apart from the Book of Daniel, no one by the name of Darius the Mede is known to have existed. His identity is a topic of debate. Outside of this verse, the Book of Daniel also states that he was the son of Xerxes (Ahasuerus) (9:1) and appointed subordinates to help rule the kingdom (6:1-2).

Those scholars who believe the Book of Daniel is historically unreliable argue that the author erroneously thought Darius I Hystaspes (522-486 BC) conquered Babylon. Other than having the same name, there are three principle reasons why such confusion could have arisen: (1) Darius I Hystaspes put down two revolts in Babylon in 522; (2) he installed 20 satrapies; and (3) he was the father, not the son, of Xerxes I. This suggestion is not satisfactory. As noted above, the author of Daniel knew of Belshazzar, a man whose existence was quickly forgotten and only re-discovered in the 19th century AD. It is highly unlikely that an author with this knowledge would be so ignorant about the transition from Babylonian to Persian rule. Moreover, the Bible is clear that Darius I Hystaspes was of Persian origin and ruled after Cyrus’ reign (Ezra 4:5, 24; 5:6-6:14; Nehemiah 12:22). The return from captivity was one of the most significant events of Jewish history and it is unlikely a Jew would be ignorant of the fact that Cyrus conquered Babylon.

More conservative scholars argue that Darius the Mede was either Gobryas (Ugbaru) or Cyrus the Persian. Gobryas was the governor of Gutium, which was primarily governed by Medes, and thus could have been known as a Mede. He was appointed by Cyrus to govern Babylon immediately after the city was conquered. The phrases “received the kingdom” (5:31) and “was made ruler” (9:1) may imply that a superior, such as Cyrus, gave him authority. As a governor, he could be spoken of loosely as a “king” because he represented the royal authority after the king’s departure from the city. Xenophon states that he was “a man well advanced in years” and this would be consistent with an age of 62. The Nabonidus Chronicle states that he appointed sub-governors in Babylon. The Persian word Darayarahu, meaning “he who holds firm the good,” could have been a throne name. It was the name of several kings and princes.15

In my opinion, based on existing evidence, Darius the Mede was probably Cyrus the Persian. Dual titles were not uncommon, and both Cyrus and Darius were titles. Some of Cyrus’ appellations did stress his Median heritage (he was half Persian and half Median). He was about 62 years old when he conquered Babylon. Babylon was his winter residence so his presence in the city would be reasonable (ch. 6). Xerxes was also a royal title and could apply to either his father, Cambyses, or his grandfather, Astyages. “Darius the Mede” may have been used by the author to highlight the fulfillment of prophecies that the Medes would overthrow Babylon (Isaiah 13:17-22; 21:1-10; Jeremiah 51:11-58). The Aramaic of 6:28 can be translated as: “So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, that is, in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” If this translation is correct then the author is telling the reader that Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian are the same individual. Greek translators of the MT also identified Darius with Cyrus. Both the LXX and Theodotian have Cyrus instead of Darius in 11:1. The author of Bel and the Dragon said Cyrus, not the Darius of the MT, cast Daniel into the den of lions.16

Bibliography

Baldwin, Joyce G. Daniel. InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Collins, John Joseph, Frank Moore Cross, and Adela Yarbro Collins. Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1994.

Freedman, David. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Goldingay, John. Daniel. Dallas Tex.: Word Books, 1989.

Miller, Stephen R. Daniel. Holman Reference, 1994.

Walvoord, John F. Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation: A Commentary. Moody Publishers, 1971.

1Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 32.

2Miller, Daniel, 147.

3Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 32; Goldingay, Daniel, 108.

4Miller, Daniel, 148-150; Baldwin, Daniel, 22-23.

5Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 32-33.

6Goldingay, Daniel, 106.

7Miller, Daniel, 152.

8Collins, Cross, and Collins, Daniel, 245.

9Walvoord, Daniel, 120.

10Goldingay, Daniel, 109.

11Miller, Daniel, 163.

12Goldingay, Daniel, 110-111.

13Ibid., 111.

14Miller, Daniel, 167-169.

15Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 2.38-39; Baldwin, Daniel, 23-28.

16Miller, Daniel, 174-177; Baldwin, Daniel, 23-28.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s